Instagram Unveils Direct Messaging System For Private Group Photo Sharing

Kevin Systrom unveils Direct, which he calls “a simple way to send photos and videos to your friends.”

Instagram Unveils Direct Messaging System For Private Group Photo Sharing
[Image: Flickr user Sam DeLong]

Today in New York City, Instagram unveiled Direct, a new product which cofounder Kevin Systrom calls a “a simple way to send photos and videos to your friends.” Until now, Instagram users could only share their photos with all of their followers; this new feature enables users to share media to specific friends or groups.


Standing before a small audience of reporters today, Systrom ticked off a slew of use cases for the product, from sharing concert photos with fellow music lovers to exchanging shots of brunch with your foodie friends. The idea is to create more intimacy on the service, which has grown to more than 150 million users, causing some users to “self-curate,” Systrom explains, since you might not want, say, your boss to see what antics you got up to on a work night. Direct is designed to solve this problem by creating private media exchanges among your followers.

Essentially, Direct works just like a group text message. After taking a photo with Instagram, users have the option of using a new Direct menu, where they can choose a select group of friends with whom to share the picture. In a demo, Systrom shared a photo of his new puppy with his girlfriend, Nicole, though users can share media with up to 15 people directly.

Direct isn’t terribly novel–social media users can already share photos directly with their friends any number of ways, whether through SMS, email, apps like GroupMe, or even Twitter’s new direct messaging feature, which, incidentally, launched earlier this week. But Systrom hopes the ease of Instagram Direct will attract new users to his service.

Indeed, Instagram has implemented some neat new features to set the Direct service apart. For example, after sending a photo to a friend, below the image users will see their own profile picture alongside their recipient’s profile picture. The recipient’s profile picture appears faded until he or she views the image–at which point, a check mark also appears below their profile picture. “Also, if [a friend] decides to like the photo, it turns from check mark to heart,” Systrom says.

Instagrammers can view photos that have been sent directly to them via a new icon in the top right corner of their home screen. They can also respond to photos sent to them with their own, creating a thread of direct messages. Systrom cited how Instagram users attending the same wedding could now share images and videos from the ceremony, all in one intimate and continuous setting.

Instagram has also taken into account the possibility of photo spam. Users can receive direct messages on Instagram from their own followers. If someone you’re not following passes along a photo or video, it will simply go into your requests page–just as a new follower request would. “We don’t actually show the image–there’s no potential of getting images you don’t want to see,” Systrom says.


In the days leading up to the event, rumors surfaced that Instagram might be introducing a more text-based messaging system, or perhaps even Snapchat-like functionality for photos and messages. But Systrom was clear that this system was designed to share photos and videos, in addition to text. (That is, you can’t exchange text messages alone; they must be attached to photos or video.) And regarding ephemerality, Systrom says that while there’s “definitely a space” for it, Instagram is about “archiving” moments rather than letting them fade away.

Systrom hinted that in the long term, the service might introduce more group functionality, so users could curate circles of friends–coworkers, family, college friends–like they can on Facebook and Google+. He also suggested that there were opportunities on the Direct platform for brands, but said it was too early to say how it could be monetized or whether advertising could be used in the feature, such as Direct ads sent to followers. In the first version, Systrom says, the team wanted to keep things “as simple as possible.”

The Instagram Direct feature is available now for iOS and Android users.

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.