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May 26, 2019
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Instagram Direct

Instagram is killing Direct, its standalone Snapchat clone app, in the next several weeks

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As Facebook pushes ahead with its strategy to consolidate more of the backend of its various apps on to a single platform, it’s also doing a little simplifying and housekeeping. In the coming month, it will shut down Direct, the standalone Instagram direct messaging app that it was testing to rival Snapchat, on iOS and Android. Instead, Facebook and its Instagram team will channel all developments and activity into the direct messaging feature of the main Instagram app.

We first saw a message about the app closing down by way of a tweet from Direct user Matt Navarra: “In the coming month, we’ll no longer be supporting the Direct app,” Instagram notes in the app itself. “Your conversations will automatically move over to Instagram, so you don’t need to do anything.”

The details were then confirmed to us by Instagram itself:

“We’re rolling back the test of the standalone Direct app,” a spokesperson said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We’re focused on continuing to make Instagram Direct the best place for fun conversations with your friends.”

From what we understand, Instagram will continue developing Direct features — they just won’t live in a standalone app. (Tests and rollouts of new features that we’ve reported before include encryption in direct messaging, the ability to watch videos with other people, a web version of the direct messaging feature,

Instagram didn’t give any reason for the decision, but in many ways, the writing was on the wall with this one.

The app first appeared December 2017, when Instagram confirmed it had rolled it out in a select number of markets — Uruguay, Chile, Turkey, Italy, Portugal and Israel — as a test. (Instagram first launched direct messaging within the main app in 2013.)

“We want Instagram to be a place for all of your moments, and private sharing with close friends is a big part of that,” it said at the time. “To make it easier and more fun for people to connect in this way, we are beginning to test Direct – a camera-first app that connects seamlessly back to Instagram.”

But it’s not clear how many markets beyond ultimately have had access to the app, although Instagram did expand it to more. The iOS version currently notes that it is available in a much wider range of languages than Spanish, Turkish, Italian and Portuguese. It also includes English, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Norwegian Bokmål, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Slovak, Swedish, Tagalog, Thai, Traditional Chinese, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.

But with Instagram doing little to actively promote the app or its expansion to more markets, Direct never really found a lot of traction in the markets where it was active.

The only countries that make it on to AppAnnie’s app rankings for Direct are Uruguay for Android, where it was most recently at number 55 among social networking apps (with no figures for overall rankings, meaning it was too low down to be counted); and Portugal on iOS, where it was number 24 among social apps and a paltry 448 overall.

The Direct app hadn’t been updated on iOS since the end of December, although the Android version was updated as recently as the end of April.

At the time of its original launch as a test, however, Direct looked like an interesting move from Instagram.

The company had already been releasing various other features that cloned popular ones in Snapchat. The explosive growth and traction of one of them, Stories, could have felt like a sign to Facebook that there was more ground to break on creating more Snapchat-like experiences for its audience. More generally, the rise of Snapchat and direct messaging apps like WhatsApp has shown that there is a market demand for more apps based around private conversations among smaller groups, if not one-to-one.

On top of that, building a standalone messaging app takes a page out of Facebook’s own app development book, in which it launched and began to really accelerate development of a standalone Messenger app separate from the Facebook experience on mobile.

The company has not revealed any recent numbers for usage of Direct since 2017, when it said there were 375 million users of the service as it brought together permanent and ephemeral (disappearing) messages within the service.

More recently, Instagram and Facebook itself have been part of the wider scrutiny we have seen over how social platforms police and moderate harmful or offensive content. Facebook itself has faced an additional wave of criticism from some over its plans to bring together its disparate app ecosystem in terms of how they function together, with the issue being that Facebook is not giving apps like WhatsApp and Instagram enough autonomy and becoming an even bigger data monster in the process.

It may have been the depressingly low usage that ultimately killed off Direct, but I’d argue that the optics for promoting an expansion of its app real estate on to another platform weren’t particularly strong, either.

Instagram prototypes video co-watching

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The next phase of social media is about hanging out together while apart. Rather than performing on a live stream or engaging with a video chat, Instagram may allow you to chill and watch videos together with a friend. Facebook already has Watch Party for group co-viewing and in November we broke the news that Facebook Messenger’s code contains an unreleased “Watch Videos Together” feature. Now Instagram’s code reveals a “co-watch content” feature hidden inside Instagram Direct Messaging.

It’s unclear what users might be able to watch simultaneously, but the feature could give IGTV a much-needed boost, or just let you laugh and cringe at Instagram feed videos and Stories. But either way, co-viewing could make you see more ads, drive more attention to creators that will win Instagram their favor, or just make you rack up time spent on the app without forcing you to create anything.

The Instagram co-watch code was discovered by TechCrunch’s favorite tipster and reverse engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong, who previously spotted the Messenger Watch Together code. Her past findings include Instagram’s video calling, music soundtracks, and Time Well Spent dashboard months before they were officially released. The code mentions that you can “cowatch content” that comes from a “Playlist” similar to the queues of videos Facebook Watch Party admins can tee up. Users could also check out “Suggested” videos from Instagram, which would give it a new way to promote creators or spawn a zeitgeist moment around a video. It’s not certain whether users will be able to appear picture-in-picture while watching so friends can see their reactions, but that would surely be more fun.

Instagram declined to comment on the findings, which is typically of the company when a feature has been prototyped internally but hasn’t begun externally testing with users. At this stage, products can still get scrapped or take many months or even over a year to launch. But given Facebook’s philosophical intention to demote mindless viewing and promote active conversation around videos, Instagram co-watching is a sensible direction.

Facebook launched Watch Party to this end back in July and by November, 12 million had been started from Groups and they generated 8X more comments than non-synced or Live videos. That proves co-watching can make video feel less isolating. That’s important as startups like Houseparty group video chatrooms and Squad screenshare messaging try to nip at Insta’s heels.

It’s also another sign that following the departure of the Instagram founders, Facebook has been standardizing features across its apps, eroding their distinct identities. Mark Zuckerberg plans to unify the backend of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram to allow cross-app messaging. But Instagram has always been Facebook’s content-first app, so while Watch Party might have been built for Facebook Groups, Instagram could be where it hits its stride.

Speaking of the Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, this article’s author Josh Constine will be interviewing them on Monday 3/11 at SXSW. Come see them at 2pm in the Austin Convention Center’s Ballroom D to hear about their thoughts on the creator economy, why they left Facebook, and what they’ll do next. Check out the rest of TechCrunch’s SXSW panels here, and RSVP for our party on Sunday.

Instagram is now testing a web version of Direct messages

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Insta-chat addicts, rejoice. You could soon be trading memes and emojis from your computer. Instagram is internally testing a web version of Instagram Direct messaging that lets people chat without the app. If, or more likely, when this rolls out publicly, users on a desktop or laptop PC or Mac, a non-Android or iPhone or that access Instagram via a mobile web browser will be able to privately message other Instagrammers.

Instagram web DMs was one of the features I called for in a product wish list I published in December alongside a See More Like This button for the feed and an upload quality indicator so your Stories don’t look crappy if you’re on a slow connection.

A web version could make Instagram Direct a more full-fledged SMS alternative rather than just a tacked-on feature for discussing the photo and video app’s content. Messages are a massive driver of engagement that frequently draws people back to an app, and knowing friends can receive them anywhere could get users sending more. While Facebook doesn’t monetize Instagram Direct itself, it could get users browsing through more ads while they wait for replies.

Given Facebook’s own chat feature started on the web before going mobile and getting its own Messenger app, and WhatsApp launched a web portal in 2015 followed by desktop clients in 2016, it’s sensible for Instagram Direct to embrace the web too. It could also pave the way for Facebook’s upcoming unification of the backend infrastructure for Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram Direct that should expand encryption and allow cross-app chat, as reported by The New York Times’ Mike Isaac.

Mobile reverse-engineering specialist and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong alerted us to Instagram’s test. It’s not available to users yet, as it’s still being internally “dogfooded” — used heavily by employees to identify bugs or necessary product changes. But she was able to dig past security and access the feature from both a desktop computer and mobile web browser.

In the current design, Direct on the web is available from a Direct arrow icon in the top right of the screen. The feature looks like it will use an Instagram.com/direct/…. URL structure. If the feature becomes popular, perhaps Facebook will break it out with its own Direct destination website similar to https://www.messenger.com, which launched in 2015. Instagram began testing a standalone Direct app last year, but it’s yet to be officially launched and doesn’t seem exceedingly popular.

Instagram’s web experience has long lagged behind its native apps. You still can’t post Stories from the desktop like you can with Facebook Stories. It only added notifications on the web in 2016 and Explore, plus some other features, in 2017.

Instagram did not respond to requests for comment before press time. The company rarely provides a statement on internal features in development until they’re being externally tested on the public, at which point it typically tells us “We’re always testing ways to improve the Instagram experience.” [Update: Instagram confirms to TechCrunch it’s not publicly testing this, which is its go-to line when a product surfaces that’s still in internal development. Meanwhile, Wong notes that Instagram has now cut off her access to the web Direct feature.]

After cloning Snapchat Stories to create Instagram Stories, the Facebook-owned app decimated Snap’s growth rate. That left Snapchat to focus on premium video and messaging. Last year Instagram built IGTV to compete with Snapchat Discover. And now with it testing a web version of Direct, it seems poised to challenge Snap for chat too.

Instagram launches walkie-talkie voice messaging

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You’d think Facebook would be faster at copying itself. Five years after Facebook Messenger took a cue from WhatsApp and Voxer to launch voice messaging, and four months after TechCrunch reported Instagram was testing its own walkie talkie feature, voice messaging is rolling out globally on Instagram Direct today.

Users can hold down the microphone button to record a short voice message that appears in the chat as an audio wave form that recipients can then listen to at their leisure.  Voice messages are up to one-minute long, stay permanently listenable rather than disappearing, and work in one-on-one and group chats on iOS and Android. The feature offers an off-camera asynchronous alternative to the video calling feature Instagram released in June.

Hands-free Direct messaging could make Instagram a more appealing chat app for drivers, people on the move with their hands full, or users in the developing world who want a more intimate connection without having to pay for the data for long audio or video calls. It could also be a win for users in countries with less popular languages or ones that aren’t easily compatible with smartphone keyboards, as they could talk to friends instead of typing.

 

The launch deepens Facebook’s entry into the voice market. From its first voice messaging and VOIP features back in 2013 to its new voice control system Aloha that works on its recently launched Portal video chat screen, Facebook has long taken an interest in the accessibility of voice but only got serious about building it across its products in 2018. Along with Instagram video calling, today launch raises the question of whether Portal and Instagram will team up. That could make Portal more useful…but also risks making Instagram less cool by tightening its ties to Facebook.

WhatsApp could wreck Snapchat again by copying ephemeral messaging

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WhatsApp already ruined Snapchat’s growth once. WhatsApp Status, its clone of Snapchat Stories, now has 450 million daily active users compared to Snapchat’s 188 million. That’s despite its 24-hour disappearing slideshows missing tons of features including augmented reality selfie masks, animated GIFs, or personalized avatars like Bitmoji. A good enough version of Stories conveniently baked into the messaging app beloved in the developing world where Snapchat wasn’t proved massively successful. Snapchat actually lost total users in Q2 and Q3 2018, and even lost Rest Of World users in Q2 despite that being where late stage social networks rely on for growth.

That’s why it’s so surprising that WhatsApp hasn’t already copied the other big Snapchat feature, ephemeral messaging. When chats can disappear, people feel free to be themselves — more silly, more vulnerable, more expressive. For teens who’ve purposefully turned away from the permanence of the Facebook profile timeline, there’s a sense of freedom in ephemerality. You don’t have to worry about old stuff coming back to haunt or embarass you. Snapchat rode this idea to become a cultural staple for the younger generation.

Yet right now WhatsApp only lets you send permanent photos, videos, and texts. There is an Unsend option, but it only works for an hour after a message is sent. That’s far from the default ephemerality of Snapchat where seen messages disappear once you close the chat window unless you purposefully tap to save them.

Instagram has arrived at a decent compromise. You can send both permanent and temporary photos and videos. Text messages are permanent by default, but you can unsend even old ones. The result is the flexibility to both chat through expiring photos and off-the-cuff messages knowing they will or can disappear, while also being able to have reliable, utilitarian chats and privately share photos for posterity without the fear that one wrong tap could erase them. When Instagram Direct added ephemeral messaging, it saw a growth spurt to over 375 million monthly users as of April 2017.

Snapchat lost daily active users the past two quarters

WhatsApp should be able to build this pretty easily. Add a timer option when people send media so photos or videos can disappear after 10 seconds, a minute, an hour, or a day. Let people add a similar timer to specific messages they send, or set a per chat thread default for how long your messages last similar to fellow encrypted messaging app Signal.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel’s memo leaked by Cheddar’s Alex Heath indicates that he views chat with close friends as the linchpin of his app that was hampered by this year’s disastrous redesign. He constantly refers to Snapchat as the fastest way to communicate. That might be true for images but not necessarily text, as BTIG’s Rich Greenfield points out, citing how expiring text can causes conversations to break down. It’s likely that Snapchat will double-down on messaging now that Stories has been copied to death.

Given its interest in onboarding older users, that might mean making texts easier to keep permanent or at least lengthening how long they last before they disappear. And with its upcoming Project Mushroom re-engineering of the Snapchat app so it works better in developing markets, Snap will increasingly try to become WhatsApp.

…Unless WhatsApp can become Snapchat first. Spiegel proved people want the flexibility of temporary messaging. Who cares who invented something if it can be brought to more people to deliver more joy? WhatsApp should swallow its pride and embrace the ephemeral.

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