This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.
Facebook is going to make you love its short video format called Reels whether you want to or not.
The bite-size and repeating videos started on Instagram in 2020 as an outright copy of TikTok, the hottest app then and now. If you haven’t noticed Reels yet, you will soon.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said this week that it would display Reels on more places in its apps. Reels are also taking prime real estate at the top of the screen when people open the Facebook app. Maybe soon we’ll see Reels of used cars that are listed on Facebook’s version of Craigslist.
Shoving Reels into our eye holes is a little bit sad, a little bit brilliant — and worth watching as a test of Facebook’s ability to will itself into continued popularity. Leveraging success to make further success is how dominant companies win — and it has worked for Facebook before — but it’s also how dominant companies lose.
Facebook might be the most interesting technology story to watch in 2022. The company could be on the cusp of the last days of an empire or about to reinvent itself again and become even more popular and richer.
We might not want to admit it, but the fate of Facebook and its strategies affect us all. This company’s choices about which features to prioritize influence how billions of people interact, the ways that businesses reach their customers and the look and feel of the rest of the internet.
Reels is an essential part of Facebook’s strategy to head off the company’s worst fears about losing its appeal to young people and shriveling into irrelevance. Facebook wants some of that TikTok coolness, and it made its own version of that app for Instagram.
It’s not clear if Reels is a particularly effective copycat of TikTok, but it might not matter.
Facebook has said that Reels is catching on and that people using its apps are increasing the time they spend with the videos more than almost anything else. The company expanded Reels from Instagram to the Facebook app and now into more spots in those apps and in more countries. The company is also experimenting with financial incentives to compel more professional internet entertainers to make Reels.
We can’t really know for sure how popular Reels are or why. Are people latching on to Reels because they like them, or because they’re just there? Google said recently that videos from its own version of TikTok, YouTube Shorts, are viewed 15 billion times each day. The number is so big that I didn’t believe it at first, but I should have. Google has billions of users, and that is a valuable asset to grab attention for new things.
Maybe Facebook’s versions of TikTok, Zoom or Nextdoor aren’t great, but the company has many ways to nudge the billions of people using its apps to try them. The company can see what people seem to like and don’t, tinker and keep making a new product better — and unavoidable — until it takes hold.
That’s pretty much what Facebook did about five years ago with Stories, its copycat of the most popular feature on Snapchat. Facebook experimented with the video-and-photo chronicles of people’s days on Instagram and made them prominent in the company’s apps, and then they won.
The playbook for Reels seems almost identical, and Facebook executives have essentially said to investors: Hey, we made Stories catch on and we’ll do it with Reels, too. Putting its muscle behind new products isn’t foolproof for Facebook. This isn’t even the company’s first try at copying TikTok.
Following other tech companies’ leads doesn’t make Facebook seem inventive, although it might not matter. The history of Silicon Valley is marked by companies that didn’t necessarily make a product first or best but made it biggest.
But the recent rise of younger companies like TikTok and the e-commerce star Shopify may be evidence that inventive upstarts can take advantage of lumbering tech superpowers.
That’s what makes Facebook so compelling to watch. A Big Tech superpower may be putting all its muscle into staying on top, or it might be withering in front of us.
Tip of the Week
Automate your way to energy savings
Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, has helpful ways to trim your electric bill — and maybe force yourself to stop mindlessly surfing on your laptop.
For a recent column, I tested energy-saving tech to fight soaring gas and electricity bills. I concluded that devices like the Nest thermostat were useful but did less to cut my home energy bill than old-school improvements like installing proper insulation and sealing air leaks.
Still, anything that you can do to avoid wasting energy is worthwhile. One way to make it simpler is to set a schedule to turn off electrical devices at home so they drain less power.
Some believe that putting a computer in sleep mode saves more power than shutting it down because of the amount of energy required to turn it back on. But that’s a myth: The Department of Energy recommends shutting down the device if you’re not going to use it for more than two hours.
Here’s how to do this with a Mac computer, a Windows PC and a light switch.
On a Mac, you can program the computer to shut off at a certain time each day. I try to clock out of work by dinner time, so I opened the computer’s System Preferences app, found the option for “Energy Saver,” and then clicked on “Battery” and “Schedule.” There, I checked the box to shut down my computer every day at 6 p.m.
To schedule lights to turn off, you can buy an internet-connected lighting product such as TP-Link’s Kasa smart light switch. TP-Link’s app has settings to set the lights to turn on and off at certain hours.
Before we go …
The new weapons of war: As Russia prepared to attack Ukraine, cyberattacks knocked offline the websites of some Ukrainian government agencies and banks. Researchers also said that they discovered malicious software that wipes out data in hundreds of computers in Ukraine.
Related: Russian companies may be able to use cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to bypass international bans on financial transactions intended to punish Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, my colleagues Emily Flitter and David Yaffe-Bellany report. Also, prices of cryptocurrencies were dropping on Thursday. When the world is unstable, investors tend to sell assets considered high risk.
“Everything uncomfortable and potentially harmful that happens on the internet can feel so much more powerful in virtual reality,” said Naomi Nix, a Bloomberg News writer after she had a disturbing encounter using Facebook’s Quest virtual reality headset.
Soccer teams call in the nerds: My colleague Rory Smith writes that a German soccer team’s quiet hiring of a data scientist shows that the sport is embracing data analysis for assessing players’ skills.
Hugs to this
Watching war unravel in Ukraine is painful. If you need a dose of joy, particularly today, may I recommend staring at these glorious photos of the pug celebrity Noodle wearing a colorful sweater. They’re from a few months ago, but I’m OK with that.