Why Big Tech are waging a war over vertical video shorts

BY James O'Malley

26th Mar 2024 Technology

4 min read

Why Big Tech are waging a war over vertical video shorts
Shortform vertical video now dominates our social media feeds, with TikTok, Meta and Google all fighting for our attention—but there can be only one winner
If you’ve scrolled through your Facebook feed recently, you may have noticed something surprising: lots and lots of short videos. And none of them feature anyone you know.
Instead of the usual diet of your friends’ pets and holiday photos, Facebook’s algorithm has decided that you’d rather watch 30-second clips of everything from gym routines and cooking to rollercoasters and death-defying stunts.
What makes this “Reels” feature strange is that it is hugely addictive. Hit on a video, and you’ll find yourself flipping through dozens of short clips, all shot vertically, to be viewed on your phone, instead of in widescreen like a TV show.
I know from personal experience what this feeling is like.
I’ll take a break and hit on one short clip of an adorable cat or someone unboxing a new gadget and, well, the next time I look up it’s 20 minutes later and the blank document on my computer monitor is confirming to me that my work still hasn’t been done.
It makes falling down a YouTube rabbit-hole seem positively quaint in terms of addictive qualities.
"Meta worries that TikTok will eclipse even an app as big as Facebook"
However, as addictive as they are, you could be forgiven for thinking that Reels are pretty trivial. Sure, it seems a little unusual to include them inside the app that is supposed to be about connecting you with your friends, but it’s still just video, right?
However, as silly as it seems, Reels—or "short-form video"—is actually super important, and is at the centre of a major battle between the world’s largest tech firms.
The format was first pioneered by, of course, TikTok—the Chinese-owned video app that has taken the world by storm since it launched in 2016. Today, TikTok has around 23 million UK users every month—including basically every person you know under the age of 25.
And that’s a fact that has made Facebook and its parent company, Meta, very nervous indeed.
As TikTok has continued to boom, Facebook has actually fallen in popularity among “Gen Z”—it appears that once grown-ups turned up on the platform a few years ago, it made it instantly uncool. So over time, Meta worries that TikTok will eclipse even an app as big as Facebook.

The power of TikTok

person filming people under marquee on tiktok short video
The reason TikTok has proven such a powerful challenger to Facebook’s social media dominance is almost entirely down to these sorts of short-form videos.
The format is almost perfectly optimised to be as addictive as possible: TikTok’s app shows you a video, and if you don’t like it…you can simply swipe it away and another one will start playing instantly.
And because it is portrait, not landscape, videos look "right" when viewed on your phone—however much that might infuriate film connoisseurs.
What’s also smart is that TikTok’s algorithm picks videos for you based on what you actually watch, and not what you say you want.
"It’s also a format where it is much easier to slip in advertising"
So as much as you might claim to want to watch high-brow philosophical discussions, if what you’re actually watching on TikTok is videos of cats, then TikTok will figure this out and serve up more cats for you to watch. No search box required.
It’s also a format where it is much easier to slip in advertising, as an ad can just seamlessly be the next video you swipe to, and swiped away just as fast. So no wonder TikTok is popular—it’s addictive for users, and good for advertisers too.
So you can understand why Meta wanted a piece of the action.
Facebook first launched Reels globally almost exactly a year ago in a bid to try and capture a slice of this market. It’s also rolled out Reels to Instagram, which it owns as well.

All to fight for

youtube logo on phone
Facebook isn’t the only app trying to do what TikTok does so well. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta, has integrated Reels even more aggressively into its app.
And even Google is nervous, launching its own TikTok-style video section of YouTube (which it owns) a couple of years ago.
Today if you go to the YouTube homepage, you’ll find not just recommendations for traditional, widescreen videos (as God intended), but dozens of Reels—what it calls “Shorts”—to watch too.
And behind the scenes, the company has strong-armed some of the biggest video makers on its platform to start making shorts, in addition to their traditional videos, for the same reason.
"In the end it is likely that there will only be one winner"
So why are all three companies fighting so aggressively over this form of video?
Ultimately it’s because in the end it is likely that there will only be one winner—just like how YouTube is pretty much the only place we go to watch home-made videos, or how WhatsApp is what almost everyone in Britain now uses for text messaging.
Whichever company can grow its short-form video business the fastest is likely to end up with a big slice of our screen time—and all of the profits that come with it.
As things stand, though TikTok currently maintains a healthy lead in the category, both YouTube and Facebook have deep pockets— so expect to see even more Reels and Shorts popping up in your feed as this intense battle continues to rage.
You won’t be able to take your eyes off them.
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