Facebook Can't Expect a Messaging Monopoly

Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom introduces Instagram Direct at a news conference in New York, on Dec. 12 Photograph by Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

If you were engaged in something worthwhile on Thursday rather than paying attention to technology blogs, you might have missed the fact that photo-sharing app Instagram—now a subsidiary of social behemoth Facebook—launched a new feature the company calls Instagram Direct, as Om predicted it would several weeks ago. The new feature essentially turns Instagram into a messaging app, allowing users to send the equivalent of direct messages to friends along with a picture or video.

This feature obviously pits Instagram against a horde of other messaging apps and micro-social networks, including Twitter—which just launched a new photo-enhanced direct-messaging feature of its own—as well as Snapchat, Kik, WhatsApp, and Facebook’s own branded messenger service. It’s getting so smartphone users could probably fill up an entire screen with just apps that involve photo-sharing and/or messaging of some kind.

Everyone seems to want to be “the e-mail of chat,” or the one ring that rules them all, as The Lord of the Rings put it. But is such a thing even possible? I don’t think so. And even if it is possible, I would argue that by the time it actually occurs, the entire market will have become so commoditized that there will be no point in owning it.

This is not the first time we have seen this particular movie: Anyone old enough to remember Windows 95 can probably recall the cumbersome and Balkanized environment we had in desktop messaging at one point—with AOL’s Instant Messenger, Microsoft’s MSN Messenger, and numerous wannabe one-ring apps like ICQ (which inadvertently helped spark a technology startup boom in Israel). It got so you had to run three apps just to stay in touch with everyone you wanted to chat with on different platforms.

The biggest roadblock to total messaging domination by any one provider isn’t just that the market is incredibly fragmented, it’s the reason why that fragmentation exists: namely, that different networks serve different purposes or solve different problems, and they can’t all be shoved into one single offering—as much as Mark Zuckerberg would like to think they can (Google is also trying to do this by forcing everything into Google Hangouts, another failed strategy).

Facebook has certainly tried this gambit numerous times with Messenger, Poke, its highly touted “social inbox” e-mail offering (which as far as I can tell hardly anyone actually uses) and probably half a dozen other attempts I’m forgetting.

But while some people I know use Facebook Messenger and like it, many of my friends and family do not. When it comes to my children, who are teenagers or older, text messaging is the killer app and always will be. Apple’s iMessage was great when everyone used iPhones, but now that a few of us are on Android that no longer works, so it’s either text or in some cases a Twitter DM. Gchat works sometimes, but not everyone uses Gmail.

Outside the family, meanwhile, it could be anything from Snapchat to Path to Facebook to e-mail, or half a dozen apps in between—someone tried to connect with me on something called Line the other day and I had literally never even heard of it, and I theoretically do this for a living.

While Facebook has the benefit of being connected to the people who theoretically matter in your life, whether they are friends or family, other messaging apps and services have their own distinct qualities. I can see why Instagram wanted to add messaging—or thought it made sense—because I have connected with a whole separate group of people based on the images they share or their responses to my images. That’s a very specific type of interaction, though.

Snapchat obviously has the benefit of ephemerality, which allows you to share photos without having to worry about how good they look, because they aren’t going to stick around anyway. That removes a lot of the social stress from the sharing, and that’s a positive feature in many ways—but Facebook and Instagram can’t just add ephemerality, because it’s not in their DNA, and it’s not what people associate with those apps.

So are we doomed to live in a Balkanized chat environment forever, with multiple silos, none of which communicate with each other? At least for the time being, that appears to be the case. And by the time a single app or protocol like e-mail or xmpp comes along—if it ever does—everyone will have moved on to the next hot market, whatever that might be.

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