The more social networking apps change, the more they all start to look the same. To wit, Instagram just added a feature it calls Instagram Direct, which appears to be designed to address increasingly popular social climbers like Snapchat.
Available now as an update to the Instagram app on iPhones and Android handsets, Instagram Direct lets you send a photo or video directly to up to 15 of your friends (or people that you follow), rather than letting all of your followers see what you post every time. In the app, you're presented with a new "Direct" tab, and you can see who's actually looked at the photo. You can also receive comments on the photo, to which you can, in turn, respond, generating an online dialogue. (You cannot, however, initiate a text-only chat directly, just in case you were wondering.)
Certainly other apps have tried to address those moments when you want to share – but not with everyone. Google+ has circles, for example, and Whatsapp lets anyone create groups. Instagram Direct has the virtue of being much easier to use, however, and an installed base of over 150 million users, according to the company.
To judge the new feature, we went to our in-house expert, a tween power user. She juggles multiple accounts and thousands of followers. She even uses some accounts in an RPG (role playing game) mode. She pointed out to us that every time Instagram adds a new feature, it adds clutter. For example, the direct responses are not presented in the same area as your news column, so now you have to check yet another, separate area. Many people have multiple Instagram accounts, so checking all the direct responses could get onerous.
Our power user did admit that the new feature could be useful when one wants to avoid the social opprobrium of some particularly judgmental followers. It could be used for the sorts of communications most people restrict to e-mail – although with the Instagram version, you have to post a photo or video.
There are some potential pitfalls she didn't mention. Although you can only send photos and videos directly to people who follow you, you might also receive messages from utter strangers attempting to send you photos and videos. The messages end up in a "pending" area; you can ignore them or choose to view a stranger's image. So parents will want to take note of the new feature. (You can still keep your account private so that only those people you accept can follow you.)
Does this add a level of privacy to Instagram? Not really. If all the people you directly message are good actors, then your posts are private. However, many people on Instagram habitually screen-capture posts and then repost or "regram" them. So if one of the 15 people you directly message regrams your image, your photo will go public and there's nothing you can do to stop it. Worse, all those direct posts are archived (so be nice to your friends).
This is why the new feature is called Instagram Direct, not Instagram Private. In other words, like any social networking app, you should never post things that could get you fired, divorced, or arrested. But you knew that already. [Free; instagram.com]