Is Instagram Eyeing Up Email Addresses For Its Users As Part Of A Messaging Service?

Last week, Om Malik at GigaOm reported that Instagram was working on a messaging feature to complement its already very-popular social photo app, now with some 150 million monthly active users. Now we’ve caught wind of something that could point to a possible feature on this would-be messaging product: email addresses.

A source who works in marketing for an e-commerce company has emailed us a list of such email addresses. They appeared, she says, as part of a request she made of one of the many companies out there that compiles data from social networking sites.

smudged instagram addresses

She says that part of the results consisted of Twitter handles and Facebook email addresses, and it seems as if the addresses appeared as part of that list.

“We requested verified email addresses for the followers of a certain fan club on Twitter and received back these results,” she wrote in an email. “We use [the data provider] as a tool for gathering information, and suddenly A LOT of the email fields were being filled in with Instagram email addresses.”

(I’m intentionally keeping out the names of the users, the marketing exec, her e-commerce company, and that of the data provider.)

The data provider, which uses a number of different APIs to populate its database, says that it had never seen these Instagram email addresses before. A spokesperson for Instagram declined to comment for this story.

So what might be going on here?

It could be a pure database fluke. I’ve been sending messages to the list of email addresses on the list provided by our source, and I’ve also tried out my own would-be Instagram email based on my own user ID. They have all come back to me with “too many hops” error messages. Too many hops can indicate an endless forwarding loop, or too many servers involved in relaying a message, but not necessarily that the address does not exist.

On the other hand, Instagram email addresses could support Om’s claim that a messaging service is on the horizon. (His report noted that messaging features, which could be person-to-person or may include group messaging, will be in the next version of the app, expected before the end of the year.)

For starters, look to Instagram’s owner, Facebook. There is something instructive here in how Facebook has built its own messaging services that Instagram may have gleaned.

The world’s largest social network saw as far back as 2010 the usefulness of having a native email address integrated with a messaging service. It means making that messaging service more useful, but it also means more ways of keeping people on your own platform. So, when Facebook unveiled its revamped messaging system in 2010, it included the option for users to create email addresses.

Sending messages to that email address then automatically sync up with Facebook’s messaging platform, which also aggregate messages sent to you by SMS (if you have a phone number associated with your account); Facebook’s standalone Messenger app; or Facebook itself.

“This is not an email killer. This is a messaging experience that includes email as one part of it,” Zuckerberg said at the time. “This is the way that the future should work.”

Instagram, in a way, has already laid some groundwork for using email on its platform. You share photos by default to your Instagram stream, but you can additionally send them to specific people via email.

Other developers, meanwhile, have already shown the way forward for what an Instagram messaging service might do. Instachat, InstaMessage and InstaDM are among those that are standalone apps that let you send direct messages to your Instagram contacts.

Giving users on the Instagram network native email addresses could make the process of sending directly to individuals more seamless and integrated to the bigger platform. It could also be a way for those recipients of your emailed images a way to respond back to you.

Facebook, it should also be pointed out, has actually already started to create a link between Instagram and direct messaging: an update to Facebook’s Messenger app in August let users access their Instagram libraries to send messages to friends. A first step for Instagram messenger, as it were, and a way of offering more picture-messaging services to a public that has demonstrated and appetite for the feature, courtesy of new hits like Snapchat and a host of apps with an image-first focus.

We have seen much written about the big opportunity in messaging services (one recent, strong example here).

Instagram has proven to be the king of photo apps when it comes to social, open consumption, so it seems natural that it, too, would eventually sprout its own private communications channel, to tap into that opportunity as well.

But while Instagram emerged at a time when there was little in the way of its growth, times are different today. Services like WhatsApp — at an average of 15 billion messages per day as of November — are now pushing close to SMS’s 20 billion/day messaging dominance.

Focusing on sending photos and video that disappear soon after they are sent, Snapchat is not quite that big — the last number Snapchat revealed, earlier this month, was 400 million messages received (not sent) each day. But it is tapping into a key, young segment of consumers, who (at least for the moment) like to use it, a lot.

Between that rock and hard place of apps attracting people to totally new features (ephemeral messages), and those that have become heavyweights in more text-based mobile messaging (SMS, WhatsApp, Instagram’s owner Facebook, and many more), whether Instagram will be able to wedge its own 150-million MAU presence into the scene — with email addresses or without — remains to be seen.

(My informal straw poll points to some early resistance to the concept, but as Twitter co-founder Biz Stone once famously said, it could end up being “The messaging system we didn’t know we needed until we had it.”)

Image: Instagram