Instagram Direct Is Facebook's Latest Play For Time

Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom unveils Instagram Direct in New York. Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

The old hands of social media are striking back. On Thursday, Facebook took its latest swing at Snapchat with a direct messaging service for Instagram. The move comes just two days after Twitter revamped its long-ignored direct messaging service with an update to its mobile apps.

Mobile messaging has become a threat to both companies, which were established around the idea of broadcast-style communication. Sure, they’re aware that people sometimes talk one-on-one — Facebook once tried to kill email, after all — but they’ve largely been outflanked on messaging for mobile devices. WhatsApp, a messaging app, has 350 million active users, significantly more than Twitter’s 232 million, and Facebook is scared enough of Snapchat that it tried to buy it, then imitate it, then buy it again. Users of Snapchat and WhatsApp each share about 400 million photos daily, over seven times the 55 million photos that are shared on Instagram per day.

Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s chief executive, said that the new messaging feature is expected to get the site’s users to share more images. Currently, 80 million people use the service every day, posting about two-thirds that number of photos. The new feature, called Instagram Direct, allows people to send private photo messages to up to 15 people, so long as those people follow them already. Direct messages to others are added to a pending queue, where recipients have to accept the message before seeing the photo. The whole thing remains completely separate from Facebook.

The hope is clearly that some of the direct dialogue taking place elsewhere will migrate back to Facebook’s services. Systrom says that Instagram wants to be about communication, not photography, so that people will spend more time using it “just like you text everyday.” That said, the company didn’t try to match its competitors feature-for-feature. Images don’t disappear, a la Snapchat, and Instagram decided against offering the ability to send text-only messages, as you can through WhatsApp.

Of course, this isn’t really a competition to become the best messaging app, it’s a competition for people’s time. With our digital tastes still being developed, there’s no reason that some time now spent for texting can’t migrate to photo sharing. With that in mind, Systrom said the best thing for Instagram to do is to stick to its strengths. Better to be the best private-photo sharing service than an also-ran messaging app or disappearing photo tool.

If the competition isn’t direct, neither is the business plan. Instagram remains characteristically cautious when it comes to monetization. The company says there’s no plan to sell advertising in people’s Instagram inboxes. Instead, it hopes that people who come for the messages will stay for the public feed, and will see their advertisements there.

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