After successfully cloning Snapchat Stories, Instagram is looking to one-up its competitor in chat with a reimagining of its sleeping giant of a private messaging feature, Instagram Direct. Rolling out today to everyone, Instagram Direct will now combine disappearing ephemeral photo and video messages with traditional permanent text and image messages in the same one-on-one and group threads.
You’ll be able to send silly short-lived selfies embellished with creative tools and temporary replies to friends’ Stories inside an on-going conversation that could include texted logistics or discussion of public posts.
Back in November, Instagram launched ephemeral messaging in Direct as a separate section from permanent messages. But after seeing Direct usage spike from 300 million to 375 million monthly active users since then, it decided that disappearing messages were popular enough to give the spotlight by uniting the two communication types in a single inbox.
“Direct is our best friends experience, for just goofing around on the couch and sharing with your best friends” says Instagram’s Product Lead for Sharing Robby Stein. It turns out 85% of people’s Direct messages already go the same three friends, with the average group size being two to three. Baking Instagram Stories’ stickers, doodles, and overlaid text into Direct could make those conversations fun in ways SMS can’t.
While Snapchat’s ephemeral messaging feature does let you save specific messages in a thread, it defaults to deleting everything and the design makes it confusing what stays. In my hands on testing of the new Instagram Direct, I found it intuitive to rapidly switch between formats in a thread, and useful to have some of the thread available to look back on.
The stock market seems to see the new Instagram Direct as a serious threat to Snapchat. Snap Inc’s share price droppd 2.79% as soon as the Instagram news was announced.
“Direct is important to us” Stein says. “There’s a shift happening right now . . . with a generation where the main way they communicate is their camera.”
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Instagram Direct launched broken back in 2013. It only let you start a thread with a photo or video, then text chat about it, but you couldn’t actually send image replies. Direct messages were more like a private posts and comment threads. But two years later once it’d hit a surprising 85 million users in 2015, Instagram fixed it by allowing back-and-forth visual discussions.
That update jumpstarted its growth, and by November 2016, it had 300 million active users. But by then, Instagram had seen how teens were taking to Snapchat for rapid-fire ephemeral conversations. They’d endlessly trade jokey selfies and video clips instead of typing. The camera is the new keyboard, and Direct needed to adapt.
But with so many people already on Direct, Instagram didn’t want to immediately upend the product until it was sure it had the right design. So Direct’s Product Manager Keith Peiris decided “First let’s put this at the top. Lets’ not change the laws of physics of the sharing ecosystem.” Ephemeral messages appeared as Story-style bubbles above the Direct inbox, with the traditional permanent threads below.
But that was “certainly a bit complicated” as I wrote at the time. Keith agrees, and now he tells me “given how much usage we’ve seen in it, we’ve decided to focus the entire Direct experience on visual messages.”
The new Instagram Direct lives a left-swipe away from your homescreen feed. Each thread gets its own camera button for instant ephemeral sharing, plus there’s a big button at the bottom if you want to shoot first and choose who to send it two next. Gone is the row of bubbles above the inbox, which is a relief since it felt a bit like that “every app launches Stories” gag going around.