Instagram introduces Instagram Direct

Today at an Instagram press event, the photo and video sharing company’s co-founder Kevin Systrom unveiled its next big product: Instagram Direct, available today.

The new feature comes out at a time when interest in Snapchat, which offers dissolvable videos and photo “moments” for its users, is surging. Om Malik reported earlier this year that Instagram was planning to add this feature, writing “it is fundamentally my belief that most applications need a layer of communication — comments and lightweight signals such as Facebook’s likes are part of that layer. And so is messaging.”

The latter half of this year has been full of bold moves for Instagram, which has been expanding and experimenting all of 2013. In addition to a long-awaited entry into Windows Phone, the company has also unveiled advertising units on its platform. But private messaging is clearly the crown jewel in these developments, and one that the company is pinning high hopes on to expand the usability of the three-year-old platform.

The move to private messaging has a motive not unlike Instagram’s last big update, a drive to video that went toe-to-toe with Twitter’s Vine technology. But, while the previous feature seemed like a product years in the works, it’s hard to believe that the folks at the Instagram helm knew in advance that private photo messaging would be as hot as it is today: SnapChat is rumored to have already turned down multi-billion dollar acquisition offers, and the company is working its magic on teens, a demographic that is largely seen as slipping away from the Facebook’s grasp.

Instagram is in a prime position to offer an alternative to SnapChat’s offering, and do so with its more advanced video and editing tools. And, naturally, Instagram Direct does that in its own way, without SnapChat’s ephemeral, markup-friendly interface.

“I think there’s a space for ephemerality in general, but Instagram is about capturing and sharing those moments, and we’re the best at archiving those moments,” Systrom explained.

Instagram Direct works like a cross between Snapchat and Twitter’s DM inbox. After a photo is taken and filtered, users have the choice to either post to the public feed or to click the “Direct” tab, which enables users to select a group of up to 15 people to share the photo with. Unlike Snapchat, these photos don’t dissolve — groups cannot only see it but “Heart” it and comment around it. They remain in the Direct inbox, which is accessible in the upper right-hand corner of the feed.

“Sometimes, you want to be able to share, not with everyone, but just with a specific group,” Systrom said.

As for privacy, users will only receive messages from others whom they already follow, to guard against abuse. Photos sent from others are placed into a “pending” box without images.

It’s interesting to see Instagram choosing to enter in the photo communication fray without utilizing the hallmarks that have made Snapchat so popular. But, that doesn’t mean that the feature won’t be a hit. It’s a natural extension of what Instagram already does, and a no-brainer for people who want to share more personal photos of babies, puppies and family on the platform.

“Sometimes you see something, but it’s not really meant for the larger group,” Systrom said. “But now there’s some sense of self-curation.”