If Instagram Isn’t Building Private Messaging, It Should Be

Once upon a time, Instagram was a little app for sharing photos with friends and photography buffs. Its mostly public sharing model worked at that size. But now with over 150 million users, widespread awareness, and years of people following each other, users may be holding back from posting as much because they don’t want the whole world to see what they see.

That’s why it may be the right time for Instagram to launch private messaging. [Update 12/11: Instagram will launch messaging on December 12th, TechCrunch confirms from multiple sources.] 

That time could come as soon as December 12th when Instagram holds a press event in New York, for which it sent out invitations today with the tagline “You are invited to share a moment with Kevin Systrom and the Instagram team.” The snail-mail invite came with a woodblock printed with an Instagram on it, leading writers, including our own Jordan Crook, to speculate Instagram might launch some sort of physical printing option. photo<br />(6)

While that might be cute, and a nice holiday gift option, I suspect (with no inside knowledge) that Instagram is actually gearing up for the launch of private messaging, a feature that last month GigaOm’s Om Malik said “well-placed sources” told him Instagram is preparing to release.

There are a ton of reasons this makes sense. Let’s start with why physical printing isn’t worthy of its own launch event. Last year, Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, tested a postcard service for sending paper prints of your photos to friends. It never took off and was shut down. Facebook
also launched a physical Gifts service but eventually switched to only selling virtual gift cards. It seems Facebook hasn’t physical goods to be a big enough business to support.

Meanwhile there are a slew of small startups like Postagram and CanvasPop that print Instagrams on everything from postcards to canvas
paintings. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of additional value for Instagram to add by launching its own printing service. A simpler native integration for sending photos to or buying prints from third-party services beyond its existing APIs doesn’t seem important enough to warrant its own press blitz (though it could be a small part of the show).

“Public Eyes / They’re Watching You”

So why messaging? Because Instagram has outgrown public sharing. Yes, you can set your entire profile to private so only people you approve can see everything you share, but that’s privacy with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel.

Most people are excited to share some photos publicly and have them shown right in the feeds of whoever follows them. In fact, they tag their photos with reams of hashtags just so they show up in more places and win them the sweet sweet validation of another Instagram heart or follower. Setting their account to private would mean their more benign pics of sunsets and lattes wouldn’t get as many eyeballs.

photo (4)While Instagram’s privacy model hasn’t changed much over the years from a functionality standpoint, a lot more people see the photos you post today. There’s better native discovery of photos, a web version of your profile, and an ecosystem of third-party apps for power users. That means someone who is curious about where you are and what you are doing has a lot easier time finding your photos now.

But most importantly, Instagram just has way more users now than when some of its earliest, most loyal, and most engaged users joined. It’s gone from early tech adopters and artists to teens to mainstream young adults to even hosting a good number of parents.

Does that growth progression ring any bells? It should because Facebook similarly went from young to mainstream to your mom. And what did that cause? A chilling effect on sharing. Posting party pics, silly jokes, or snarky perspectives on the world is a lot less appealing when you
know your dad, boss, little sister, or stalker are watching.

That is a dangerous trend for Instagram. It needs people constantly sharing photos to fill its feed so other people check it, are delighted…and see its new ads. Less sharing = less happiness/revenue.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of apps happy to help you share photos privately. Snapchat is building a powerhouse social network on the concept of private sharing. It doesn’t matter who joins Snapchat, as the only people who see your photos and videos are the ones you send them to. Then there’s a ton of international messaging apps like WeChat, WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, and Line where people can share their precious moments privately.

Perhaps if Facebook’s bid to acquire Snapchat was successful, it could use that as its private photo-sharing play. But it got rejected, and so the burden falls on Instagram.

I’d imagine Instagram messaging could fit in the top left of the app, or be worked into the existing Activity tab alongside tags and likes. Anyone you follow would be eligible to send you messages, and group messaging would be allowed. Threads would typically start with a photo and caption, and permit both photo and text replies to let people have a conversation around the moments they’re sharing. Messages could also be a private back channel for discussing photos shared publicly.

Done right, private photo sharing could be a huge win for Instagram.

4 Reasons Instagram Needs Messages

1. Boxing Out Competitors

Most people who have Snapchat probably have Instagram, too, and more of their friends are probably also on Instagram. Its size suddenly goes from a liability to an asset with private messaging.

2. Notifications

Today if your best friend shares a photo on Instagram, you might not even know. There’s no notification sent. And since Instagram is an unfiltered feed like Twitter, it has the same issue where your favorite people can get drowned out by some shutter-happy person you followed but don’t even know. You might be missing some of Instagram’s most relevant content. Without the constant stream of
notifications like on Facebook, it’s easy to forget to even visit Instagram. I sometimes go weeks without checking as there’s nothing there addressed specifically to me to demand my attention.

But with Instagram messaging private sharing, you can be damn sure I’d open any photo sent to me. And after that, I’d probably browse my feed, get a few more smiles, and maybe see some ads. Instagram Messages could re-engage tuned-out users.

3. Growth

Messages could drive sign-ups for Instagram. You can already share a photo via email but then the engagement happens outside of Instagram in a decidedly crusty old medium. If I could privately message people by phone number (the identity basis for most modern messaging apps), I might lure my friends into signing up for Instagram.

4. Intimate Sharing

Private messaging could get people sharing a whole new category of photos and videos on Instagram. Intimate ones.

photo (5)I’m not just talking about sexy ones (though who couldn’t benefit from some blur and filters to touch up their birthday suit or flirtatious smile). I mean the other stuff people currently share on Snapchat. Funny faces. Inside jokes. Lighthearted insults. Controversial or illegal activities. Flawed portraits. Random glimpses into their current scene.

These are all things you probably wouldn’t want to share with everyone, and wouldn’t want permanently associated with your profile. They don’t necessarily need to be able to disappear like Snapchats (though
maybe that’d be useful), but having them buried in conversation threads would probably be enough privacy by obscurity.

In a world where you get made fun of for sharing selfies, but people do it anyway, it seems clear that the world’s most beloved photo app gives a way to share on the down low. It’d certainly keep some of the photos that appear in this post from ending up on a blog somewhere.

Instagram messaging could also turn the app into a true visual communication medium — one where people use it as a sort of replacement for text. Getting people constantly sending photos and
captions back and forth over Instagram could rack up more engagement in a single conversation than the social network side of that app sees in a week.

Right now, conversation on Instagram is restricted to its messy, unthreaded comment system. And like the chilling effect on the photos in the first place, I’m often apprehensive to share a comment publicly, especially if I only really care if the person who shot the photo saw it. I’d often be inclined to message them directly, but currently have to resort to text or Facebook message. Messaging would fix that.

Maybe I’m drinking my own Kool-Aid but this seems like a wise move to make, and sooner rather than later. Sure, it would bloat Instagram a bit, making it less clear what the purpose of the once-lean app is. It might cannibalize some photos from the feed, though they might inspire more return visits and engagement as private messages. It could be seen, like Poke, as another desperate attempt by Facebook to compete with Snapchat. And it could flop, becoming a rarely used extra communication channel we’re loathe to check. But I don’t think those are big enough concerns to dissuade Instagram.

The company’s mission is “to capture and share the world’s moments.” But right now it’s only broadcasting them.