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Goodbye, Instagram Direct. Hello, Messenger inside Instagram

The company is turning two messaging walled gardens into a shared experience with new features and privacy controls.

Goodbye, Instagram Direct. Hello, Messenger inside Instagram
The new “Watch Together” feature lets Instagram users watch stuff with friends [Photo: Facebook]
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Facebook is unveiling a meaty upgrade to Instagram’s messaging capabilities. It’s also announcing some new features coming soon to Messenger. And the biggest news of all is that both of these updates are the same thing.

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That’s because the new Instagram messaging experience is an in-app incarnation of Messenger, replacing Instagram Direct as we’ve known it since 2013. Both versions will let you communicate with people on the other service, allowing Instagram users to ping friends on Messenger and vice versa for the first time.

Chances are you won’t see either incarnation right away: Facebook is launching them in just a few countries, and plans a broader rollout—including the U.S.—later in the year. This unification represents the biggest tangible result so far of Facebook’s plan—unveiled by Mark Zuckerberg back in March 2019–to ramp up its emphasis on private messaging and increasingly integrate Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp. That overarching effort is the subject of my new article “Inside Facebook’s quadruple play: how the company is finally melding its apps.”

The coming together of Messenger and Instagram Direct comes almost 14 months after Bloomberg’s Kurt Wagner and Sarah Frier reported that Facebook had merged the teams responsible for the two messaging services as part of a move to put them on the same code base. The goal is “basically solving the problem of helping people reach their friends, wherever they are,” Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox told me. “And also consolidating the energy of innovating and messaging so that we’re not duplicating everything and trying to get everything going at the same time across the apps.”

Among the new Instagram messaging experience’s features: selfie stickers. [Photo: Facebook]
Facebook is not betting that cross-app messaging is a killer app for the masses in itself. Nor is it expecting users to get excited about the fact that combining two formerly stand-alone pieces of software is a more efficient way to do future development. Instead, it’s launching the new Messenger-powered version of Instagram messaging with “a whole bunch of fun stuff” that Cox says was shaped by user requests. That includes selfie stickers, custom emoji reactions, message color themes and effects, threaded replies, the ability to watch videos together, a Snapchat-esque “Vanish Mode,” and more. Some of these additions are already available in Messenger; others, including the first two, will debut on Instagram and come to Messenger later.

Another group of new features, though not designed with fun in mind, are equally important: They give users more control over their privacy. Instagram users will get the ability to fine-tune which types of incoming messages are delivered, which are routed to the “Message Requests” holding pen, and which are blocked altogether. Instagram will also offer suggestions of people you might want to block on Instagram based on who you’ve previously blocked on Facebook. And anyone who just doesn’t want a gateway between Instagram and Messenger—maybe because their use of the two services reflects different parts of their life—can turn it off.

“Part of what we’ve seen in messaging and social networking is that it’s important to build experiences that let people have some fluidity, but also have control over who they are in that context,” explains Cox.

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Instagram’s new messaging features let users control how easily various kinds of users can reach them—if they can at all. [Photo: Facebook]
In short, the new version looks substantial enough to induce plenty of people to make the jump. For now, the switch from Instagram Direct to the new Messenger-based features is optional, though it’s permanent once you’ve made it. Facebook says that it has no plan to shut down the old version altogether, though such a move feels inevitable at some point.

Even if Instagram’s new messaging features are a step up from the ones they’re replacing, the Messenger takeover may be freighted with emotion for some users—especially those who love Instagram but regard Facebook with suspicion. Cox says the new experience is close enough to Instagram Direct in its classic form that nobody should be discombobulated. And Messenger is moving to a more neutral aesthetic so doesn’t feel out of place inside Instagram. “It’s not going feel like the blue and white of Facebook is now in Instagram,” he says. “We’re moving it to be something that presents itself as being an experience you can use across both.”

As big a leap as Facebook is making with all this, it has more work ahead. For one thing, its third messaging platform, WhatsApp, isn’t part of the shift or the new one-stop Accounts Center settings dashboard that Facebook announced on Tuesday. And Zuckerberg’s declaration that Messenger and Instagram will match WhatsApp’s use of end-to-end encryption—a gigantic undertaking from a technical standpoint—won’t become a reality until 2021 at the earliest. “There’s just a huge road map,” says Cox. But with today’s announcements, that long-term messaging journey is officially underway.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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