Facebook-owned Instagram sits at 150 million users and looks to create the ultimate multimedia experience on mobile, borrowing from other services in the process.
When Vine came on the scene in spring 2013, Instagram was quick to add videos too. Now as Snapchat - the photo and video application built on the basis that old posts are unwanted and therefore disappear - has begun to gain more traction, especially among teenagers, Instagram doesn't want its app to fade into the dark.
Instagram on Thursday moved past the main photo and video timeline within its mobile apps and into the world of direct messaging with Instagram Direct. Users can now send and receive messages in real-time.
"Sometimes you want to be able to share not with everyone but just with a specific group," Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom said at an event in New York.
Instagram Direct is built into the main Instagram app. A new envelope icon is found in the top right corner of the app's home feed. When you tap to open, your Direct inbox will appear. That's where you'll see all the photos and videos you have received. Like Twitter's direct messaging feature, only people you follow will be able to send you photos and videos. Anyone else will have their message put into a pending request folder. If you reject a photo in the pending folder, the person can never message you again.
Instagram has made this feature really direct and easy to use, leaving emphasis on the media itself rather than text, as you'd expect. It's about sharing the photos and videos you'd normally share on your feed, in a private way. This can be great for inside jokes or just a moment in your life that you don't want everyone to know about.
To take a photo and send it to friends, you can do so in the main camera interface or in the Direct portion of the app. The + button in the top right brings up the camera to snap a photo or video. It's the same Instagram interface you're used to: load grid lines to help centre the shot, flip the camera around for a selfie, and disable flash, if you wish. Once a photo is taken, the "next" button lets you add a caption and choose people to send the photo to, to start a new thread - a back and forth conversation with a specific person doesn't stay in one thread.
If it was a particularly good photo or video, you can decide to share it with the world, too. The camera interface gives you the ability to send Direct or to the world.
Instagram will suggest a list of people you interact with frequently to whom to send the media, but you can also choose from the list of people you're following or search for them by name. Once you've chosen the recipients (you can choose more than one), a thread between you and that person will begin. It reminds us to like a typical iMessage or WhatsApp conversation.
Group messaging is an option with up to 15 people. Once people view a photo, their avatar will have a green checkmark over it. If they "like" the photo (the same way "likes" are utilised in the main Instagram interface), their avatar will transform with a heart over it. They can then comment on the photo in real-time, making for a nifty chat experience. If you regret sending a photo, it can be deleted.
At the New York event, Systrom hinted t you interact with frequently,at the ability to put contacts into specific groups may be in the pipeline. However, Instagram wanted to keep the Direct feature simple for now. The people you message the most will be higher on the list.
Unlike competitor Snapchat, photos and videos within Instagram Direct don't disappear - so make sure to keep them "PG". The editing abilities within Direct are the same as in the main Instagram interface, including a selection of themes, a straightening tool, colour balancer and blur effect.
Will people use this? Facebook has tried to go up against Snapchat with its Poke app in the past, and it failed to gain traction. Seeing as Instagram already has so many users, we would be surprised if Direct didn't catch on. With a feature like this, it really comes down to where you're friends are.
The updated Instagram app, version 5.0, is available on Google Play and the iTunes App Store.
The addition of Instagram Direct comes months after Facebook is said to have worked to purchase Snapchat for $3 billion, before being turned down.