Today’s Instagram Update Could Ease the Dreaded @ Wars
Instagram is revamping Instagram Direct, making it a far more useful messaging service.
The social network introduced Instagram Direct in 2013. It wasn’t exactly a messaging service so much as a way to share private or semi-private photos with someone or a group of someones. If you had an image that a handful of people might like but you didn’t want to post for all to see, you could quickly and easily send it to a select audience. So in that way, Instagram Direct was more of a privacy option, or at least that’s how it felt.
Now, Instagram is updating Direct. The revisions allow threaded conversations so you can chat about photos instead of simply commenting on them. You also can start group chats, which remakes the experience of communicating on the platform, which, even in Instagram Direct, always has been done in the comments. The UI of an ongoing conversation feels very different than comments posted in response to something, a point Ann Baum, a lead engineer on the project, understands. “We wanted to make a place for conversations to keep going, to enable that back-and-forth,” she says. “Now if you want to respond and send a new photo, you have a place to do that.”
Photos in your feed will include an arrow icon that allows you to send it to someone and start a chat, by text or emoji. (Privacy remains intact: If your account is private and shared with someone who doesn’t follow you, that person won’t see the image until they follow you—and if they’re blocked, that’s that.)
Does all this mean Instagram will follow its corporate parent Facebook in creating a standalone messaging app? Maybe. At this point, it is “not on the table,” though Baum says Instagram will “keep an ear to the ground and stay responsive to user feedback.”
It’s not as if Instagram has been a silent slideshow until now. In addition to Instagram Direct, @ mentions are a virtual hive of chatter. A popular Instagram user’s comments runneth over with @ mentions, creating lengthy conversations (and occasionally full-blown debates) between users, or simply letting you alert someone to a photo. (I use them to let my sisters about important @pupsinpajamas update.) Instagram says 40 percent of all comments include an @ mention, and acknowledged that photos posted by its most high-profile users are riddled with them. Look no further than the Instagram accounts of Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj, or Damian Lillard to see a crushing deluge of @ symbols.
“It’s definitely something we were aware of and we built this product so that people have an easier way to share the things they see in their feeds,” says Baum. “It will also help unlock richer conversations happening in the comment sections.” And perhaps, allow the owners of especially popular accounts to engage with fans.
Senior social media strategist Shane Evans ran the Seattle Seahawks’ Insta account during the NFC championship game two years ago. “My sole responsibility was monitoring the Insta comments,” he says. But the flood of comments made it nearly impossible to do that, let alone have meaningful conversations with fans. Plenty of prominent photographers have amassed Instagram followings as well, and being able to talk to their followers about photography would a better use of the comments section. “I’ve always wanted inline responses like on Facebook, and I would especially love that on the online version,” says Branden Harvey, who has more than 100,000 followers. He says he used to respond to every comment, which helped build a community. “But logistically it’s just so difficult now, and having all these private tagging conversations without me is fine and good but it’s not as relevant for me to respond to.” He says if people take that banter private, without the clutter he may have an easier time finding the conversations users really want to have with him.
He does admit that there is something to watching the private @ mentions he would miss. “I would be a little sad not to see the conversations—you know, be a fly on the wall.” It’s fun to watch strangers go on in your comment sections—except when it’s not: “I posted a photo of my fiancé wearing these cute black shoes and these two people in the comments were @ mentioning each other going on about how her feet were chubby—which, they are not, at all—and they were just going back and forth having this conversation about her chubby feet.”
Harvey won’t miss those types of conversations. Neither will you.