Instagram is different today. The photo-sharing app, which is now 150 million users strong, has added a new direct messaging feature that allows users to send photos and video to individual users and groups. It’s similar to Snapchat in execution—or Twitter’s latest messaging initiative—though images don’t disappear after a set time; the anti-Snapchat, if you will. This is more like your own private Instagram, where you can like, comment and share away from your busy News Feed.
Instagram Direct essentially acts like any traditional messaging service, encouraging users to share images and video as they normally would—just privately. The feature isn’t complicated, nor is it obtrusive, and if you’re familiar with Instagram at its most basic level, you’ll pick up Direct in seconds. There’s less emphasis on text, though you can comment on photos as you would in any other setting; conversations can go on forever so long as the photo you share exists. The difference is that not everyone in your feed can see it.
When you download the update, Instagram will show you exactly how to use the new feature, which can be accessed by pressing on a new mailbox icon at the top right. Press it, and you’ll be presented with a plus button that brings up the app’s camera; after you snap a photo, or record a video, and apply a filter, you’ll be able to add a caption, and also select who you want to share that photo with (up to 15 people, and only those you follow). That’s it. Alternatively, you can jump right into the main camera app, snap a photo and apply a filter, and then choose to either share that photo with your main News Feed or privately with a group or individual.
This is a feature you’ll either use all the time or not at all. In simpler terms, this is basically like using iMessage for iOS or Hangouts for Android, it’s just baked right into Instagram so you’re more frequently inside the app itself. You have to start conversations with a photo or video; as Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom explained, “Photos alone are just art, photos when transmitted become communication.” Unfortunately, when you do reply to someone’s photo with a photo of your own, it starts a completely new chat, instead of continuing on with the starting message. In the future, it would be nice to see Instagram more of a conversational layout.
Otherwise the feature is extremely easy, and doesn’t at all interfere with the main Instagram experience. Worth noting: it’s possible to send messages to anyone you follow, meaning you can seemingly communicate with every single Instagram user so long as their profile isn’t private and that they accept your pending photo if they don’t follow you back. That opens up a lot of possibility to connect with complete strangers, though I can definitely see it leading to users making their profiles private as a result.
If you do receive an inappropriate image, or an image or video from someone you no longer want to receive messages from, you can ignore posts from specific users, and even hide posts (essentially like archiving). Images you send privately can also be deleted for all recipients, so it won’t be in their private inbox forever—that’s a nice level of control if you send an image you wind up regretting. For what it’s worth, you can screenshot an image without the sender knowing.
Instagram has evolved into a bustling mobile community, one where complete strangers can connect and meet; it’s no longer just about beaming images onto your feed for everyone to see. The photo-sharing site is now more intimate, and even more social than it was before.