Instagram’s standalone Direct app can be its version of Snapchat’s new friends-only tab

A week after Snapchat said that it was separating the social and media sides of its service, Instagram is making a similar move.

Instagram is testing a standalone app for its private messaging feature, the Facebook-owned photo-and-video platform announced on Thursday. Called Direct, the app is being tested in six non-US countries — Chile, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Turkey and Uruguay — and Instagram plans to roll it out globally next year, according to a company spokesperson.

By spinning its messaging tab out into its own app, Instagram’s move parallels its parent company’s when Facebook spawned Messenger into a standalone service in 2011. However, it also mirrors Snapchat’s recently announced redesign.

Last week, Snapchat said that it would silo people’s friends into a separate part of its app. Now, Instagram is laying the groundwork to follow suit but in a separate app altogether.

During the testing phase, Instagram’s standalone Direct app is comparable to the pre-redesign version of Snapchat, with the Stories and Discover tabs lopped off. Other features in Instagram’s Direct app that you’ll recognize from Snapchat include:

  • the app opens to the camera
  • people can swipe to see their inbox of private messages
  • people can send photos and videos that feature augmented-reality filters and illustrations
  • or they can opt to send text messages instead

Instagram’s Direct app opens to the camera (left), features an inbox (center) and lets people add animations and illustrations to private messages (right).

Direct isn’t a complete facsimile of Snapchat’s product in the way that Stories was. For example, instead of swiping left to access this inbox like on Snapchat, people will swipe right to find it in Direct. More to the point, Snapchat’s redesign will let people view their friends’ Stories within the friends-only tab, but Direct users will still need to open Instagram’s main app to see their friends’ Stories. However, that could change.

If Snapchat’s stance that social and media should be separate proves prescient — if people do crave a private space for their friends apart from celebrities, media companies, brands and everyone else whose presence primarily serves as entertainment — then Direct affords Instagram an opportunity to quickly follow suit.

It’s easy to foresee Instagram enabling Direct users to view their friends’ Stories within Direct. It could even link these Stories to the profile photos displayed in a person’s inbox, which happens to be how Snapchat is combining Stories and private messages in its friends-only feed. And to make sure this privatization is profitable, Instagram could even insert ads after a friend’s Story, which it effectively already does in its main app’s Stories feed and which Snapchat will do in its friends-only feed.


About The Author

Tim Peterson, Third Door Media’s Social Media Reporter, has been covering the digital marketing industry since 2011. He has reported for Advertising Age, Adweek and Direct Marketing News. A born-and-raised Angeleno who graduated from New York University, he currently lives in Los Angeles. He has broken stories on Snapchat’s ad plans, Hulu founding CEO Jason Kilar’s attempt to take on YouTube and the assemblage of Amazon’s ad-tech stack; analyzed YouTube’s programming strategy, Facebook’s ad-tech ambitions and ad blocking’s rise; and documented digital video’s biggest annual event VidCon, BuzzFeed’s branded video production process and Snapchat Discover’s ad load six months after launch. He has also developed tools to monitor brands’ early adoption of live-streaming apps, compare Yahoo’s and Google’s search designs and examine the NFL’s YouTube and Facebook video strategies.

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