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Instagram almost named its ‘Close Friends’ feature ‘Favorites,’ but translation problems stopped it

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Users only put one or two people in their Favorites

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Instagram introduced its Close Friends feature nearly a year ago as a way to give users a space to post less curated content, similar to what had become increasingly popular with secondary “Finstagram” accounts. On this week’s episode of Why’d You Push That Button?, Kaitlyn Tiffany and I want to know how Close Friends is going. Who’s using it? Why are they using it? Is the Finsta in trouble?

We chat with a few previous guests and our own close friends to figure out how Close Friends has changed their Instagram experience. We chat with Kaitlyn’s sister, who previously told us about her Finstagram, as well as Verge senior reporter Andy Hawkins, who has told us about his Stories habits. Finally, our producer Andrew Marino comes on the show to deliver heartbreaking news about his Close Friends list and who is and isn’t on it.

Finally, we interview Instagram director of product management Robby Stein, who gives us behind-the-scenes details about how Close Friends came to exist and how it’s going so far. He tells us that the name Close Friends took time to find, as the team had to think about how it would translate internationally. Read the transcript and listen to the show below.

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Robby Stein: My name is Robby Stein. I work on the consumer products at Instagram, focused on helping you share and connect with your friends and family and people that you care about.

How did you come up with the idea for Close Friends?

[Close Friends] came about by really just talking to people and learning from users around what they were hoping to add to their Story, and at times when they felt like they weren’t going to post to their Story, why.

Why did Close Friends arise as a solution to the Story-posting problem?

The number one thing that came up was, there are just some things that aren’t meant for everyone, and there really isn’t a great place for me to put that on Instagram. So we started developing an idea that became Close Friends to help you select a list of people that you did feel comfortable sharing more with, and it became the product that it is today.

Did Finstas influence your decision to build Close Friends?

I think Finstas definitely suggested that there was a need to have a smaller group of people you could share to. But I think one of the challenges with Finstas is that it also inherits the core properties of the standard Instagram account. So, people request to follow. The graph also grows. Also, it can become quite large.

How does Close Friends build on the Finsta experience?

For us, the biggest change between what Finstas do and what Close Friends provides is you create a list that only the producer can see and know about. You can add people, remove people, share to it, and no one really can request to join it or be a part of it. There’s no social pressure to add or remove people, and there’s no public listing of who’s on that list, either. Those were all things that we thought were really important in creating a space that really felt the most comfortable to people.

Was it always called Close Friends and was it always just for Stories content?

The first version of Close Friends was called “Favorites,” and you could then post both Stories and Feed posts to it. The Feed posts would go to a special tab on your profile with a little star that was called Favorites, and if you were in a Close Friends list, you could see that content on your friend’s profile on the separate tab. We learned very quickly that product did not do very well when we were testing it.

How did people react to being able to segment off part of their Feed posts?

I think the most important lesson was that, particularly between Feed and Stories, people really believed that the purpose of Feed was to help share some of the highlights of their lives. And that was so ingrained in people’s minds, it might feel a little bit unusual to post a very raw, kind of goofy, blurry photo, as an example. It feels like it might be out of place there, even if it’s in a restricted part of Feed.

Then on the profile, we also noticed no one really went to the profile to look at the Feed content, and they just didn’t really realize it was there.

What were some of the translation challenges you faced?

Translation is really important when you name a product, and we messed that up. We thought Favorites was very simple because in English it’s a very clear word, but in other languages, it’s not.

So in one of the languages, we realized based on the translation it actually meant, “my beloved one,” which when you translate it and view that strictly, people were only posting to one person. They were adding one person to the list. We saw in a few of the countries where the translation didn’t work, the lists were one, like exactly one, which obviously would make the feature fairly hard to use.

We actually did research the name very deeply with people. I think when we asked people, “Hey, who are your favorites,” it really to them suggested the one, two, three kind of size people in their social graph. When we talk to people about Close Friends, it was really closer to maybe one or two dozen. It felt like, “Okay, this is really the inner-group of people that I would feel okay posting really goofy things that may be embarrassing. If I post it to everyone who is following me, I might be a little embarrassed by it.

How many people are typically included in people’s Close Friends list?

It is closer to a 20 number for a good chunk of people, but there’s a lot of variance. Some people really restrict it to three or four. Other people who have very large followings have hundreds of people on their Close Friends list because that really represents, to them, friends.

I think actually the flexibility of the model allowed it to be adopted in the way that’s best for you, which I think ended up being one of the benefits, and I think an important product lesson for me in terms of not being overly prescriptive with the product and letting the community best adopt it in the way that they need it.

How did you settle on the green ring and Close Friends badge?

The color green we experimented with among a bunch of other colors. It was really a selection that our lead designer pushed for. One of the reasons why was we have a lot of colors in Instagram. There’s a gradient color as the logo. We have a pink-oriented light wheel, kind of, for the Stories ring. Direct has some of these blues. So just picking a color in a range that didn’t feel really similar to something else, it was really important that it stood out and it felt different, and it felt like it was something that was unique in the product. So, green, when we saw in the experience was so clearly delineated from everything else, it was just kind of something natural.

Close Friends never really feels bad — it only feels good to be included on someone’s Close Friends list. Was this intentional?

One of the things we thought about when we were designing it was, “How do you make it feel like a really positive moment when someone sees one of these things pop up?” You actually feel like you’re getting something special. That was really fun when we started using it internally and getting closer to the final product that we launched. It was such a positive moment to come to Instagram and see these and feel like, “Wow, someone’s opening up a little bit more. They feel like I’m someone that they want to see more of their life. That’s awesome.”

Have you noticed any user behavior changes with Close Friends?

One thing that we have noticed is that people tend to reply much more to the Close Friends posts in part because you’re obviously selecting a group of people that in some way probably do care more about what you’re posting. I think also because people do feel special, they feel, “Oh, this is a thing that’s kind of unique to me. Less people saw it.” They’re more willing to then write back.

One of the positives of this, I think, is people are having more conversations on this content that kick off direct conversations, catching up with friends, family. Certainly when I post, people in my family write back that might not have necessarily written back to my Story.

How has Close Friends affected your personal relationships?

I also have had different experiences where some people are really people that are in my closest inner circle and other people less so. For those people, I feel like we’ve become much closer because of this feature, which has been a really positive part of my experience of it.