Thursday, December 12, 2013

Opinion: Instagram arrives late to the party, follows the messaging crowd with Direct

Opinion: Instagram arrives late to the party, follows the messaging crowd with Direct

When we cozied up for Instagram's event in New York earlier today, it was with a pang of hope that the announcement would stir up some scorching excitement, something new and unexpected. Smart bets were on a direct messaging service (which it was), but would Instagram trek into the novel land of hard-copy, printed pictures?

Impractical, perhaps, but still interesting.

What we ended up with was a short 20-minute presentation introducing Instagram Direct, a service that lets users send pictures and videos privately while carrying on conversations with up to 15 people.

Instagram founder and CEO Kevin Systrom went though a few shaky talking points about art and communication, feature phones and puppies before finally dropping the singular note about its in-app direct messaging service.

Cue the video of people doing "life" with it, and the event was over.

While the presser itself was quite short and disappointing, Instagram's entrance into the DM space feels very late and perhaps even pointless. With Facebook PMs, Twitter DMs, iMessage, BlackBerry Messenger, SnapChat and countless others, we have an abundance of ways we can communicate with one another away from the internet-at-large's prying eyes.

To put it under harsher light, Instagram Direct is now yet another messaging service in a sea of pings, pokes and notifications. Sure, it's centered around photos and videos and moments, which sounds nice and all, but does it offer anything we don't already have?

Stay awhile, won't you?

Before outing Direct, Systrom noted that of t he Instagram's 150 million members, more than half use the service daily.

That's a large tally of 75 million, but another way to look at it is that there are a whopping percentage of users who aren't on Instagram as part of their day-to-day activity. These absent users may well be snapping a quick shot with their apps and then sharing it on any number of other platforms, with Instagram a by-product of their social network milieu.

It's easy to see then that with Direct, Instagram is trying to keep its current user base hooked while also attracting a new crowd increasingly keen on private messaging.

"Stay awhile, and have a conversation won't you?" we would suggest as Direct's sardonic tagline.

However, how successful Direct will be at getting users off their current messaging services - or at least spending more time on Instagram's - is a big question mark. Yes, you can have a conversation centered around a single photo or video with multipl e people, but is that really enough for Direct to become a regular messaging habit for users?

We're skeptical, to say the least.

There are Direct plusses, if copied

To be fair, Instagram Direct has a quite modern look and finished feature set, though a number of its parts look copied straight out of other services' textbooks.

Direct users can share their images with up to 15 other filter aficionados and see if they've been seen, similar to Facebook and iMessages.

As for receiving DMs from anyone, it seems Instagram has taken a cue from Twitter by only having photos and videos sent by people you know made immediately available. To combat spammers, Direct users can choose to accept or ignore a message from an unknown person, whereas Twitter shuttled the ability to receive messages from any follower in November.

Unlike SnapChat - the inevitable direct comparison of Direct - Instagram's messages are ever-lasting; they won't vaporize after an allotted number of seconds.

Call some features unoriginal, but previously Instagram users were left to discuss their photos in a sea of comments open to everyone in the community. With the addition of Direct, they can hold much smaller, more intimate discussions amongst their favorite Instagramers and friends.

Whether Instagram will turn a blind eye to all the inevitable sexting in its DM channel remains to be seen. And as we suggested to Systrom, inviting friends into a thread would have been a cool feature to include, though one that's not been completely ruled out.

The last feature would truly help Direct stand apart from the crowd, and at least Systrom and Co. are aware of the call for it.

Follow the crowd

Instagram has struck upon what's made other messaging platforms successful while adding a few twist of its own, packaging it in an appealing format and gifting it to more users than many messaging services could hope for.

It can't necessarily be faulted for taking some pages from other services' books (you can only be so original), but because of its tardiness, Instagram may suffer from feelings of, "Well, I'm used to XYZ. Why switch?"

There's a ring of Facebook Home to the whole Direct venture, a sort of let's do this because we can and because we need to do something different.

Instagram will likely find more success than Home, and while Facebook didn't really need Home to grow, Instagram arguably needs Direct. It needs to keep users engaged, it needs to attract more, and it needs to compete.

People will no doubt find themselves using Instagram Direct, even if there's no true difference between it and other services at this point. Will they keep coming back, though? That's a major unknown.


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//PART 2