Why is Instagram launching Direct Messaging?

Android apps, iPhone apps

Yesterday Instagram held a big press conference, in which they announced the ability to send photos as direct messages to other users – calling the new feature Instagram Direct – but why are they doing it?


To answer this question, we have to look at history, and the more recent shifting trends in mobile.

Remember when camera phone first launched? The cameras were a bit rubbish – but in an era when we were used to sending shrt msgs ovr txt being able to send a grainy picture was amazing. Unfortunately the technology created to convey images to each other is perhaps one of the worst things ever created: MMS.

Despite being a “standard” it was incredibly poorly implemented – no one seems to have thought it wise to impose expectations of how large or small images should be and in execution receiving an MMS (especially one sent from a different make of phone to yours), was a haphazard experience. Horrible. This did, however – leave a gap in the market that was ripe for exploitation. Could anyone come up with a messaging system that would allow images to be sent that, er, isn’t shit?

Fast forward a now and Twitter and Facebook are themselves grizzled veterans of the technology scene. Whilst both offer messaging of a sort, none of them have the ease of text messaging. Which is perhaps why over the last couple of years a different type of app has risen to prominence: the instant messaging app.

The likes of BBM, Snapchat and WhatsApp have singlehanded revived a form of communication that it’d be easy to think died with MSN Messenger and ICQ (remember that?). They’ve essentially done MMS right – and done it better. Want to send a picture? Not a problem. Get reports on when messages have been read? Easy.

What’s interesting about this space is that there are different popular apps in different parts of the world: whilst WhatsApp may be king over here, in Japan it’s Line where the action is – and Viber in other countries. Snapchat too has made an impact. But they all do essentially the same thing: instant messaging.

These are all hugely popular platforms, with millions of users and millions of messages sent every day. So it’s perhaps no wonder that everyone else is racing to catch up.

Both Apple and Google have tried to get in on this – with Apple’s iMessage replacing normal text messages, and Google’s Hangouts doing the same thing.

Twitter too have recently updated their mobile apps, making a much bigger deal of direct messages – and a couple of days ago enabled the ability to send pictures in direct messages, which hadn’t been possible before. They want users to use Twitter DMs rather than WhatsApp.

Facebook too have been making moves – to try and tackle a peculiar dilemma. They’ve launched a stand alone Facebook Messenger app which does everything BBM and WhatsApp can do but there is one problem: The Kidz aren’t using Facebook. Why? Well the thinking is that far from being the cool and trendy social media firm they once were, they’re not longer cool because, well, your mum is on Facebook. And the kidz can’t possibly be seen using a service where their parents can check up on them.

Facebook do have one thing going for them though: In April last year they bought Instagram, paying a cool $1bn. Unlike Facebook, Instagram is built for mobile phones first, and your mum just thinks it’s for stupid low-res pictures of your breakfast. And as such – it’s hugely popular.

And I think this is why they’re keeping it separate, and even developing a completely separate messaging system through it. Though ostensibly being used for the exchange of pictures, every Direct Message sent creates a new chat window between all of the recipients that enables text messaging. It’s a very deliberate play for this type of messaging – and one that if they get it right, could see Instagram become even more vital to its users.

So can it work? Can it make a dent in messaging? It’ll be interesting to find out – unless Facebook just gets it’s chequebook out and buys Snapchat instead.

James O’Malley
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