Instagram Direct felt half-baked when the in-app chat feature launched without the ability to send photo replies in December 2013. Still, the private group messaging feature built an audience of 85 million monthly users, and now it’s getting upgrades that make it a true visual communication tool to rival Snapchat.
Starting today you can reply with photos in a thread and start a convo with just text. Plus, rather than tag friends in the comments of public feed posts you want them to see, Instagram now has a new Direct share button that lets you send other people’s photos or videos in a private chat.
The changes could prime Instagram Direct for the rapid-fire back-and-forth photo messaging popular among teens that fueled Snapchat’s ascent. It could also give people a way to talk with friends about interesting public posts without their conversations getting lost in the endless reels of comments spurred by celebs and popular users.
“I definitely think it’s an evolution,” an Instagram spokesperson says regarding how Direct threads work. Previously, one person would send a photo or video, and recipients could send hearts or leave comments. But if they wanted to send a reaction photo or another image to further the discussion, they had to start a whole new thread. “Now they’re conversations, whereas before they were just a moment,” she said.
To power quick-draw convos, Direct now features an in-line camera. A quick tap adds a photo to the chat, while a tap-and-hold shoots a video. The design of the button, complete with a red line creeping around the button as you use up seconds of video, is almost identical to Snapchat’s trigger. Direct messages can also include special hearts and big emoji. You could imagine teens sending a funny photo and then all their friends replying with selfies of them laughing or related emoji.
And if you don’t have an image to share, you can now start threads with a text message. Easing these restrictions makes Instagram more similar to SMS, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, which has added its own quick cam and photo upload features for visual chat over the last few years.
Now Instagram could feasibly substitute for those traditional instant messengers, especially for netizens who might only know their friends online and not their phone numbers. Direct’s privacy model remains the same. You can message anyone. If they follow you, the thread goes right into their inbox, and if they don’t, it stays hidden in a pending cue unless the recipient approves.
Instagram tells me the changes were all driven by user feedback, with one of the engineering leads on Direct Brina Lee saying “we’re going to keep our ears to the ground.” That’s how the team knew it needed to put a Direct share button on posts in the main Instagram feed.
“We noticed that 40 percent of comments are @ mentions” Lee says. It’s a hugely prevalent emergent behavior. When users see a post that reminds them of a friend, like someone being awkward or silly, they’ll tag that friend in the post’s comments to make sure their pal sees it. Some Instagrammers even request this action as a way to achieve highly personal virality.
Now, the Direct button beside ones for likes and comments will pull up a friend selector showing the people and groups you’ve recently direct-messaged. Tap a few and you can quickly send them the post privately. Similar to Twitter’s recently added feature that lets you DM tweets, it allows you to back-channel in secret. That way you can snark about your frenemies or elaborate without your convo being fragmented among other comments.
People can also share hashtag pages, location pages, and user profiles via Direct. That ties today’s update with Instagram’s larger drive to be more than just a feed. It recently launched a new Explore page featuring trusted content and trends rather than just the most popular posts.
Instagram has been focused on its public, unfiltered feed since its inception. But with about 25 percent of its 300 million-plus user base on its messaging feature, it needs more ways for people to pull content from outside their network into chat threads. Now when you discover something awesome on Instagram, it could entertain your friends, too.
Article updated to reflect correct Instagram Direct launch date.