Instagram is best known, of course, as a service that lets more than 300 million people a month share photos and videos with the world. Rather quietly, it’s also racked up 85 million users a month who use it to exchange private messages with friends.
Those folks are using Instagram Direct, a built-in messaging feature that the company launched in December 2013. Now Instagram is beefing up its iOS and Android apps with a new version of Direct, making it a more powerful tool for communicating with friends in a visual-centric way.
Instagram Direct messages used to be one-off sessions. Now they’re ongoing, threaded conversations, so you can scroll back and see everything you’ve shared with someone. You can give custom names (such as “Italy Trip Planning”) to groups. A camera icon within the Direct interface makes it easier to respond to a photo with another photo; emoji are larger than before, since they often stand on their own rather than being used to punctuate a text-based message.
Until now, Direct has been a pretty low-key feature that was easy to miss unless you were looking for it. The new version raises its profile considerably by placing an arrow icon next to the comment and like icons that accompany every picture and video. Tap it, and you can message the item in question to one or more friends. Similarly, you can use Direct to share hashtag and location pages, letting you alert someone to posts about a topic or place.
When a social networking app plays up private-messaging features, it runs the risk of turning them into a spam magnet–as Twitter did, at least in my experience, when it made it possible for anyone to accept direct messages from any other user. Instagram’s strategy for keeping spam at bay involves showing you only messages from people you’ve chosen to follow in the main list. Other users can also contact you, but you need to tap again to see a “Pending” list of those messages.
That approach is similar to the one that Instagram’s owner, Facebook, employs in its own Messenger service. In fact, much of the new Instagram Direct is roughly comparable to long-standing functionality in Messenger, including the persistent threading of conversations and ability to name a group.
Why is Instagram ramping up messaging? Brina Lee, a software engineer for the app, told me that it’s in part because 40% of comments on Instagram posts are @mentions which name-check another member, showing that users already like to bring cool photos and videos to each others’ attention. The new features will help them do so in a more efficient manner.
There’s more at stake than that, though. If the new Direct is a hit with the Instagram community, it will open up a third major front for Facebook in the messaging wars, an area where the company is already huge and getting huger. Messenger has more than 700 million monthly users; WhatsApp has more than 800 million. Instagram Direct won’t match those numbers soon–but over time, it’s not hard to imagine it becoming yet another Facebook-owned messaging service with a user base measured in the hundreds of millions. And even if Instagram isn’t doing anything to make money off messaging right now, it’s a powerful business opportunity in the long run.