Move over, TikTok. This is… YouTube?

There was a brief period in the late 2010s when the titans of social media seemed unassailable. Facebook and Instagram in particular — companies with user bases that eclipsed the populations of entire continents — seemed so utterly dominant that it was hard to see how anyone or anything could topple them.

Then came TikTok. The hugely popular Gen Z short-form video platform has grown from an obscure lip-syncing app to a cultural force with over a billion users.

Perhaps most remarkable about the rise of TikTok is that it has left Facebook and Instagram very vulnerable.

Now we find ourselves wondering, “Can anything stop Facebook?” but, instead, “Can anyone challenge TikTok?”

The answer is yes – and the challenger is not a traditional social media app, but YouTube.

This week, the massive Alphabet-owned video site announced upcoming changes: its Shorts feature – essentially a TikTok-style short video – will be part of the YouTube Partner Program from 2023, and ad revenue will be shared with content creators. .

This suddenly makes YouTube much more attractive to creators – the relatively new class of workers who make their living producing video content.

However, what YouTube is also doing is pushing Instagram into a sort of no man’s land where it may well face growing headwinds as a social media platform or competitor to TikTok.

YouTube shorts are more important than they seem, mainly because their small digestible format makes them very popular, sometimes more so than longer format videos. YouTube Vice President of Product for Creators Amjad Hanif said the shorts get 30 billion views a day and 1.5 billion people watch them every month.

One key, however, is how they could help smaller creators rather than established ones. For example, Canadian Kyle Roswell’s YouTube channel dedicated to coffee has respectable views for longer videos, some in the hundreds of thousands; his most popular short film, on the other hand, has 13 million views.

This kind of difference can mean the difference between a YouTube being a side hustle and a job. While top YouTube channels may feel the need to commit time to a new, shorter format, smaller creators have fewer barriers to entry for an audience and revenue.

It also means YouTube is targeting TikTok, which for its part introduced revenue sharing earlier this summer. This arrangement, however, is only available to the top four percent of accounts, and it’s entirely plausible that YouTube’s wider reach could make it more accessible and profitable.

In this back and forth between short videos, however, Instagram can get lost in the mix.

Over the past two years, Instagram has pivoted in an attempt to deal with the threat of TikTok, shifting to videos called Reels and deprioritizing its initial focus on photos and sharing with friends.

It’s not going well. The Wall Street Journal reported that a leaked internal Instagram document said users don’t spend a lot of time on Reels and, even worse, “most Reels users have zero engagement.”

Beyond the traditional sense of companies competing on features, part of what’s happening here is that different platforms have different cultures and functions.

TikTok’s revelation was that it mostly ignored the idea of ​​following friends and family and was more like abbreviated TV: open the app and be entertained by people you don’t know personally. YouTube is similar, the difference being the inclusion of longer videos. It is not really social media – it’s just media, almost like the evolution or successor to television.

Instagram is different because it started life as a place to see photos of what friends were up to. That’s why when the app copied Snapchat Stories – short photos and videos that disappear – it was very successful, as it complemented the existing approach of following one’s social circle.

In trying to compete with TikTok, however, Instagram finds itself stuck in no man’s land, neither a functional competitor nor the social app it once was.

Seen in this light, it’s no wonder that the once impregnable app now looks much more, well, attackable.

For its part, YouTube seems to have made a very smart move, although of course we’re waiting to see how that plays out in the real world. If nothing else, what makes YouTube’s approach smart is that it knows what it is: a site or app people turn to for videos about things they care about.

It’s a clarity of purpose that he shares with TikTok – and one that Instagram seems to lack. And what once seemed unthinkable – that social media giants might actually go extinct – now seems all the more possible.

Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance tech columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @navalang

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