Since Instagram Direct's launch last week, I've noticed that the coverage in the tech blogosphere has been dominated by two words: The first is "Snapchat," the current champion of private messaging apps, with which Instagram's new feature is being compared. The second word is "ephemerality," or in simpler terms, something that lasts for only a very brief amount of time.
In the Snapchat ecosystem, ephemerality is the service's killer feature; users' photos self-destruct, whether they are ill-conceived selfies or something more nefarious. After all, Snapchat's userbase consists mainly of teenagers.
There may be a smattering of tax-paying adults among Snapchat's fanbase, but I'm not one of them. And while I obviously fall outside its core demographic, my deeper issue with Snapchat is the ephemerality factor. Maybe I'm just too old to understand, but I take photos with the intention of capturing moments I want to look back on, not disregard in 10 seconds. I'm not a parent yet, but I don't like the idea of my teenage son or daughter having access to a technology that essentially erases the consequences of their impulses, which, if you can hark back to your teenage years, may include more than a few not-so-proud moments.
I joined Instagram the first week the service launched in 2010. That was before Facebook scooped it up, and before the teenage invasion that resulted from that move. This summer just gone, I found myself lamenting the fact that one of my favourite online experiences was being muddied by the very thing Instagram's founders were hoping for, and got in spades: Mass adoption.
Flash forward to December, and it's more of the same. I seem to spend more time blocking users who spam me by tagging me in photos I'm not in than I do actually scrolling through pictures. I've also gotten multiple requests in the comment threads of my photos from users asking if they can have my username. Some I tell to go away, others I block, and one I asked for $10,000 (£6,000). Based on the sample of photos from that particular user, I concluded her sole stream of income was likely an allowance from her parents. So, as you may have guessed, I slowly but surely have become disenchanted with what was once my favourite app.
As a result of the aforementioned disruptions, the idea of private sharing has grown on me. That's why with Instagram Direct, I see a glimmer of hope. I'll give kudos to Snapchat in one area – the simplicity of sharing. Its simple user interface is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the app is so darn popular, besides the whole ephemerality thing. The folks at Instagram took this to heart when designing Instagram Direct; sending a private image is as simple as possible. I sent my first post, a shot of a sign near the Cape Cod beach we frequented in our youth, to my cousins in South Carolina.
Instagram was the first social platform on which I felt any semblance of intimacy, to the point where I've considered (on more than one occasion) taking my account private and only inviting followers I actually know in real life. And believe it or not, my first Instagram Direct post was one of the most satisfying sharing experiences I've had on the platform, because it was free of spam and even likes from complete strangers.
However, as much as I like the idea of Instagram Direct, the feature is in sharp contrast to the Instagram core product, which is public sharing. While using Instagram Direct is a breeze, it's not directly integrated into the core experience. That's not an issue for me but I can see how many would view it as something tacked on, and therefore easily dismiss it.
Because of those reasons alone, I think the Instagram team would do well to consider Instagram Direct as a standalone app, rather than a supplemental feature to the core experience. That could allow for new features specific to the private sharing experience, such as the ability to create user lists to share images with groups of friends more quickly and efficiently. If I had such an app at my disposal, I could see myself veering away from Instagram's public sharing roots and embracing a more intimate sharing experience with people whose comments and likes I actually appreciate.
As for the 10,000-pound gorilla that is Snapchat, I hope Instagram's founders realise that while ephemerality may be in vogue right now, it is, by definition, fleeting. Instagram Direct has the potential to be more than just a feature; it could become the future of the Instagram dynasty and the gold standard of photographic posterity on the social web. For that to happen, Instagram needs to pave its own way and resist becoming a Snapchat clone.