Instagram is testing a standalone app for private messages called Direct, a first step toward possibly toward removing messaging features from the core app. Direct, which opens to the camera in the same way Snapchat does, will become available on Android and iOS today in six countries: Chile, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Turkey, and Uruguay. If you install Direct, the inbox disappears from the Instagram app and can only be accessed in the messaging app. If Instagram introduces Direct globally — it currently has no timeline for doing so — the move could give parent company Facebook a third popular messaging tool alongside Messenger and WhatsApp.
Although it is officially only a test, Instagram's rationale for building Direct app is that private messaging can never be a best-in-class experience when it lives inside an app meant for broadcasting publicly. "We want Instagram to be a place for all of your moments, and private sharing with close friends is an important part of that," Hemal Shah, an Instagram product manager, told me. "Direct has grown within Instagram over the past four years, but we can make it even better if it stands on its own. We can push the boundaries to create the fastest and most creative space for private sharing when Direct is a camera-first, standalone app."
If that sounds familiar, it's because Facebook has undertake a transition like this before. In 2014, the company shut off messaging inside the flagship app, forcing users to download Messenger. "On mobile, each app can only focus on doing one thing well," CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the time. "Asking folks to install another app is a short term painful thing, but if we wanted to focus on serving this [use case] well, we had to build a dedicated and focused experience."
Direct was built according to similar logic. While direct messaging was originally an afterthought in Instagram, after multiple redesigns it had accumulated 375 million monthly users by April of this year, the company says. Its rise has coincided with the growth of Instagram stories, which encourage users to fire back quick replies to friends' messages by adding a "send message" box underneath each one.
Now Instagram will see whether its tools for private messages can thrive on their own. There is reason to believe that they will: messaging apps have more aggregate users than social networks do, and some have speculated that growing cultural tensions are pushing more conversations from public forums to private groups. If messaging becomes a large, pseudo-independent pillar of Instagram, it could further entrench the app in the lives of its users while opening up significant new business opportunities.
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In its current, experimental state, there is little in Direct you won't currently find in Instagram. The app consists of just three screens. Like Snapchat, it opens to the camera, in an effort to get you in the habit of regularly sharing. (You don't have to take a photo, though; you can also pull down to reveal a screen that lets you type your message.) To the left of the camera is a profile screen that lets you access settings, switch accounts, and navigate to various corners of Instagram. To the right is your inbox of messages. That's the whole app.
Still, there are some nice touches. Designers built what might be the niftiest app transition I've ever seen: If you start swiping to the right of the Direct inbox, an Instagram logo pops begins to peak out from the side of the app. Swipe all the way to the right and Direct will open Instagram. Similarly, you can swipe right in Instagram to reveal the Direct logo — a modified version of the paper-plane logo Instagram has long used for messages — and completing your swipe will take you back to Direct.
The other novelty to be found in the test app is four exclusive filters, all of which I wish were available in the Instagram app. One filter bleeps you at random while blurring your mouth, which you'll appreciate if you've ever enjoyed Jimmy Kimmel's unnecessary censorship videos. Another filter creates a live cut-out of your mouth and superimposes it over your actual mouth, making you look like an insane clown. A third filter creates an infinite video loop zooming in on your open mouth as multiple versions of your head swirl around you.
If there's a down side to Direct, it's that getting the full Instagram experience will now require users to shuttle back and forth between apps. This may feel particularly acute for people who start a lot of chats from the stories feed (this is my own most common use of Instagram messages). In my experience, using a brand-new iPhone X, navigating between apps was all but seamless. I'll be curious to see how it looks on older model phones, and in countries where data connections may be less reliable.
When Facebook split Messenger from the main app, it drew an outcry from users, who pelted it with one-star reviews. Today, the app has 1.3 billion monthly users — up from 500 million the year that it split — and yet its rating has risen to just three stars on iOS. (Instagram has a five-star rating.)
One conclusion a company might draw from this experience is that while some users will complain about having to download a second app, the improved experience will help the overall audience grow much larger. And yet I can't imagine the product team at Instagram will be satisfied with a three-star rating for Direct. And so I think there's a second, equally important lesson to take from Messenger's experience.
It's hard to remember now, but Messenger was once as fast and simple as Direct is today. It was only once it spun out on its own that it became the overstuffed junk drawer it is today: a bewildering combination of private messages, group chats, ephemeral stories, gaming, customer service bots, payments, and phone calls. The challenge for Instagram is to expand Direct's feature set while retaining the simplicity that made it attractive in the first place.