In December 2013, Instagram introduced Instagram Direct, which let users send private photo and video messages to each other for the first time. But while its tiny inbox icon sits at the top of the app, Direct has often felt like an island within the larger Instagram app. You couldn’t share images from your feed using Direct, or respond to a photo with a photo, or start a conversation using text. But as of today, you can do all three, as part of a massive overhaul of Direct that makes Instagram feel like a full-featured messaging app for the first time.
Share posts, locations, and profiles right from your newsfeed
About 85 million people use Direct each month — less than one third of Instagram's 300 million-strong user base. That's likely a result of Direct's isolation from the rest of the app. It's clear people want to share images from the feed with their friends: the company says 40 percent of all comments on Instagram posts are "@" mentions. Today, that's the best way to direct a friend's attention to a post on Instagram. The Facebook-owned service hopes Direct will begin taking the place of those mentions starting today.
"We wanted to design Direct around conversations that are very visual and very rich. It was a natural extension, honestly, for our community," says Ann Baum, a software engineer who works on Direct.
You can share more than photos in Direct now, too. Locations, hashtag pages, and profiles can all be sent as direct messages right from your Instagram feed. This makes Instagram more useful to groups — and you can add up to 15 people to a direct message. So if you see a picture of a particularly spectacular hike, by clicking the arrow button under the picture, you can share it with your local hiking group as a suggested activity. (Or just send it to your friend who thinks a 10-mile hike is a normal Sunday morning activity.)
Messages within a conversation are now threaded, to make for a more traditional messaging experience. You can reply to messages using text, emoji, or a new heart icon in the bottom right corner. You can also respond with an image of your own, either by sharing one from your feed, or through the new camera you'll find inside Direct, which lets you take a picture without having to leave the conversation.
You can reply with text, emoji, or just a heart
The team says Direct’s privacy model hasn’t changed. Anyone can send you a message, but if you don’t follow them, your message will be marked "pending," and appear as a message request. The recipient can then choose either to allow or decline your message. If you decline a message, you won't see messages from that sender again; and if you need to, you can block users. For group messages, you must be friends with the creator of the group in order to take part in the conversation. If your account is private, the only people who can see your messages are the ones you are already friends with.
Photos sent using Direct are only visible to people who could already see them
Instagram has spent the past year developing different ideas around messaging products. Last summer, the company introduced Bolt, a one-tap, one-on-one messaging service that was similar to Taptalk and Snapchat. But Bolt is still only available in New Zealand, Singapore, and South Africa. Today's update to Direct brings some of the same private messaging that Bolt offers to a larger audience, but remains tied closely to your photo feed.
Direct has some important limitations. You can’t download or save images from a conversation, and groups have a maximum of 15 people. But for maybe the first time, Direct truly feels like part of the core Instagram experience — and Instagram feels more of a messaging app than it ever has before. Facebook already has two of the world's largest messaging apps in Messenger and WhatsApp. Instagram may just have become its third.
The update for Instagram Direct will be available to iOS and Android users starting today.