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Instagram tests favorites, a major rethinking of private sharing

Instagram tests favorites, a major rethinking of private sharing


Reinventing the friends list

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Instagram has begun testing a way to share posts with a more limited group of friends. Called favorites, the feature attempts to improve on earlier social network friend lists, encouraging users to post more often by giving them more control over their audience. If it rolls out broadly, the feature could turn Instagram into the default place to share for more groups of friends — and reshape the social dynamics of Instagram in the process.

Before Instagram developed favorites, users tried to build versions of it for themselves. They created so-called “Finstagrams” — private Instagram accounts followed only a handful of their closest friends. Or they posted photos publicly and then deleted them after their close friends had acknowledged them with a like.

Each of these approaches had flaws of its own. Due to social pressures, the number of followers of a private account often swelled into the hundreds. People with private accounts often wind up using Instagram less as a result, the company says. “People are trying to hack Instagram to create smaller audiences, and we’re trying to recognize that,” says Robby Stein, product lead at Instagram.

“People are trying to hack Instagram to create smaller audiences.”

The company’s solution is favorites, a list of your closest friends that you can edit at any time. Instagram is testing the feature among a small percentage of users starting today, with an eye toward rolling it out more broadly in coming months. “We really want to get this right,” Stein says.

Still, it seems likely that favorites will come to all users. The feature is more than a year in the making, and nearly every portion of the app has been modified to accommodate it.

When you create a regular post or a story post, you’ll see new options to share them to your favorites. When you do, the post will be visible only to the people on your list — and is denoted by a green “favorites” badge on the post. Your Instagram profile also gets a new favorites tab, denoted by a star, that contains all the non-ephemeral posts you’ve shared to your favorites over time.

No one gets notified when you add or remove them to the list. They’ll know they’re your favorite only when they see a green “favorites” badge at the top of your posts. They can’t request to be added to your list through the app. And if you remove them from your favorites, they lose access to all of your private posts. If they visit the favorites tab in your profile, it will appear to be empty.

Friend lists have historically been failures

These nuances are designed to address a persistent problem in social networks: friend lists designed to encourage more private sharing have historically been failures. Years ago, Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley told me that users’ top request had been an option to make check-ins visible only to small group of friends. Foursquare built the feature, Crowley told me, but hardly anyone used it.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, has friend lists of its own. But their implementation has always been somewhat clumsy, and they seem to be relatively underused. Twitter’s lists differ in that they are public, and the company has not made improvements to them in many years.

Instagram is betting it can make its take on the friends list more successful by simplifying it. Unlike Facebook, you’ll have a single list to manage. Unlike Twitter, the list is private. And unlike any I’ve seen, Instagram’s list has visual flair. The green “favorites” badge is a small thing, but it signals your affection to the friends of yours who see it, in a way that I suspect will build a sense of intimacy. Seeing a favorites post nestled in among all the other posts in your feed feels like a bonus.

There’s no limit on the number of people you can add, though the company expects most people will add somewhere between 10 and 30 people. Instagram’s ultimate goal, Stein says, is “strengthening relationships through shared experiences.”

“The best version of Instagram is one where you feel closer to the people you are connected to because you’re on Instagram together than you would on any other product in the world,” Stein says. “Even if you live all over the world, you feel like you’re with them. That’s something we want to drive as the core focus of the product.”