Does Instagram Have the Staying Power of Facebook or Twitter?

Source: Instagram

After Instagram introduced direct messaging last year, not much has been said by the picture-sharing app or by parent company Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) about how well the feature has performed. A recent report by TechCrunch sheds a little bit of light, revealing that seven months after Instagram Direct was launched, 45 million of Instagram’s 200 million users actively sent or opened a direct message in the past month. Direct enables Instagram users to privately share photos without publishing them to their public profile, giving them an opportunity to exchange photos with individuals or with small groups of friends instead of broadcasting an image to all of their followers.

Instagram Direct enables the social network to compete with other private and ephemeral messaging services. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) have famously enabled users to share anything with everyone, whether it’s a joke, photo, link, or just a thought. But growing demand for more private ways to share messages and photos has given rise to services like Snapchat and WhatsApp, which is also now owned by Facebook.

Instagram Direct was Instagram’s response to the trend, and a blog post announcing the feature explained how it would make the service more versatile for users: “From a photo of your daily coffee to a sunrise shared from the top of a mountain hike, every Instagram moment contains something you find special — something you broadcast to your followers when you tap ‘share.’ There are, however, moments in our lives that we want to share, but that will be the most relevant only to a smaller group of people — an inside joke between friends captured on the go, a special family moment or even just one more photo of your new puppy. Instagram Direct helps you share these moments.”

Instagram reports on its own website that its service has 200 million monthly active users, at least 65 percent of whom live outside of the U.S. Those users share 60 million photos daily and generate 1.6 billion likes everyday. Fortune notes that Instagram’s users spend an average of 3.7 hours on Instagram every month, which exceeds the time that Twitter users spend in-app each month, according to Nielsen.

The fact that Instagram Direct is catching on makes it clear that the feature is a logical addition, at least for some people. And whether users rely heavily on Instagram Direct may depend on which service they consider their primary social network. Some users prefer longer-established services, like Twitter or Facebook, which are also easier to use to share text and links. For those who don’t use Instagram as their primary network, Instagram Direct is of limited utility. But for many younger users who turn away from the clutter of Facebook to use Instagram as their primary social network, Direct is a convenient way to communicate. After all, if all of your friends are on Instagram, it makes a lot more sense to use Instagram Direct than Facebook.

TechCrunch’s Josh Constine writes that an Instagram executive told him that Direct was gaining momentum in usage by small groups, such as those that spring up around shared interests, or just groups of friends who want to make sure that they see each other’s posts, since it can be hard to keep track of people if you follow a lot of different accounts.

Instagram originally rose to popularity because it capitalized on the rise of Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone, which made it easier for people to take pictures, and gave them an easy way to manipulate those photos and share them publicly. As the social feed, combined with straightforward editing tools, made it easy to share photos publicly, Direct enables the same sharing, just on a smaller scale. Constine reports: “This type of micro-sharing opens up more informal content types with a lower barrier to creation. Direct lets people share more types of photos more often … just to fewer people.”

Photo-based messaging is an area currently dominated by Snapchat; most people who download Instagram download it to create and post a public feed, rather than expressly for the purpose of sending direct messages. That raises the question of how users would compare Instagram to other options available to them. It’s not in direct competition with chat apps, since photos are still central to communication on Instagram.

As the social media space fragments and leaders like Facebook turn to multi-app strategies to give users the specific functionality that they want, it’s clear that users right now are choosing simple apps that complete one function quickly and reliably. Instagram competitor and ephemeral messaging service Snapchat is a great example. Would Snapchat users want a public feed added to the one function that the app currently performs? Probably not, because Snapchat users are looking to share photos and videos privately, not publicly — making it a true messaging service to Instagram’s social network. But Instagram doesn’t yet have enough features to consider multiple apps, and perhaps it’s that inherent simplicity that sees more users building their social networks and spending more time with it.

However, Instagram isn’t yet asking why people use its service. Instead, it focuses on improving the service’s utility. As Fortune’s Jessi Hempel said: “Unlike some of its social media rivals, Instagram isn’t given to asking existential questions about the nature of its own appeal. Snapchat hired social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson to study why people take disappearing photos. Facebook works with researchers to inquire as to the psychology of status updates. By contrast, Instagram hands out stickers. The company has a nine-person team that encourages community. It maintains Instagram’s corporate blog, which is as much an industry rag … as it is a vehicle for announcing the occasional business update.”

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram’s founders, who continue to manage the company as it operates autonomously under Facebook, are primarily focused on making Instagram a fast, dependable communications platform. Its simplicity and speed make it not only entertaining but also useful, which is key to keeping users active and engaged. Part of Systrom and Krieger’s strategy to attract and retain users is to respond to shifts in the ways that people use social networking services, and the trend toward sharing one on one or in smaller groups sees Instagram adapting to stay central to users’ photo-sharing behaviors.

Instagram has also been cautious in rolling out advertising, with Fortune reporting that Systrom personally reviews every ad that’s designed for Instagram. The additions of both Instagram Direct and advertising contribute to Instagram’s evolution as its own, self-contained social network, representing a slight shift away from its early philosophy of doing one thing — photos — quickly and dependably. The added capability to share videos and to share privately diversifies Instagram’s utility for power users. But the question that defines Instagram’s success will be whether the service can grow its base of loyal users to increase the number of people who consider it their primary social network.

Instagram is fundamentally different from Facebook or Twitter in that its mode of communication is photo-centric: you can’t send a Direct message without a photo. Communicating in the currency of photos is a behavior that comes most naturally to the generations growing up with selfies and smartphones, so Instagram may take off as younger users mature and use social networking services in more comprehensive ways. For that to happen, Instagram will have to demonstrate that it can continue to be useful and relevant to users even as the novelty wears off — something that Facebook and even Twitter have both done.

Instagram Direct is gaining traction. Even if its launch was less than spectacular, 45 million users is still an impressive number. As Instagram continues to grow, it’s not likely that it will try to compete with true chat apps, or even one-function apps like Snapchat. Instead, Instagram will look to grow into a social network like its parent company, Facebook, and building staying power by delivering the capabilities that users want. Right now, that means capitalizing on the trend toward private messaging services like Snapchat and WhatsApp, and incorporating their functionality into a social app in the hopes of building a service that will be at the center of users’ photo-sharing behaviors, whether they want to share a photo with one person or thousands.

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