Instagram has finally unveiled its answer to photo-messaging services like Snapchat. Its response is Instagram Direct — a fairly straightforward way to send pictures and videos to other people through the app. Though you access Direct by tapping on an inbox icon inside of Instagram, the service doesn't recreate a traditional inbox. Rather than allowing back-and-forth conversations through photos, Instagram Direct allows you to send a single photo or video and then chat about it. Every conversation begins with either a photo or a video, and then you and a group of up to 15 people can begin to talk in that image's comment section.
Instagram doesn't try to recreate a traditional inbox
Don't think about sending another photo back though. If you want to do that, you'll have to start a whole new message thread. Rather than creating a private photo feed for you and group of friends, Instagram has decided to build its message service around single-serving photos. If you only ever message your significant other, your inbox will fill up with dozens of threads between the two of you, with no easy way to find an old one other than scrolling past every other photo that's ever been sent to you. But if you and a group of friends want a place to make comments that you wouldn't normally write in full public view, Instagram Direct is the solution.
Like Facebook's messaging service, Instagram also won't let you pretend that you haven't seen a message that's been sent to you. It'll let you know whether a photo has been viewed or not, and it'll even display a timer beside each message to remind you of just how quickly someone viewed it or just how long they've been ignoring it for. Fortunately, Direct will let you delete messages that you regret sending out and hide ugly ones that your friends have sent to you. You can even send and receive messages with people you aren't following, but you'll have to request their approval first, which should mean your inbox won't be filling up with spam.
Instagram Direct is available as part of Instagram's 5.0 update, which is available today on both iOS and Android. The update also includes some much-needed design changes for the camera interface on iPhone, bringing it in line with the iOS 7 style that's been present across just about everything else in the app. With Direct, Instagram has also effectively added granular privacy settings for photos into the app — those settings may be disguised as a messaging service, but that just makes them all that much easier to use.