The surface read of Instagram’s announcement of a messaging-like feature today was a bit underwhelming. Like Instagram video before it, it seemed like a me-too add-on to compete with another, almost completely dissimilar content sharing app, one that happened to have spurned Instagram’s own owner.
But the announcement failed to make mention of an Instagram Direct feature that makes it strangely competitive with Snapchat’s ephemeral messaging (and in a way, even better): senders can delete sent photos directly from their recipients’ phones, at any time, even while a recipient is viewing it.
Instagram Direct mimics some of the functionality of Snapchat for photo-sending: users snap a picture, select up to 15 recipients from a list of people they follow, and send the photo off. Instagram then generates a visualization of the recipients underneath the photo and shows when each has viewed the photo, as well as if they’ve “liked” it.
Unlike Snapchat, however, Instagram attempts to encourage the permanence of the photo by generating a comment thread below it, as with photos posted to a user’s Instagram feed. This makes an Instagram Direct inbox seem, in sum, closer to a Facebook photo album. But what makes Instagram Direct different is that the sender remains in control of the existence of the photo even after it’s been sent.
The experience of accidentally sending an e-mail or message, either in error or anger, is a familiar one. Actual opportunities to undo a message are rare—Gmail offers a brief “undo” option for sent e-mails, for instance, and certain types of Microsoft Exchange server setups facilitate this. But with Internet messaging, generally, once it’s out there, it’s out there.
Instagram Direct not only leaves the detonation button in the hands of the sender, but the act of deleting a photo interrupts the recipient’s viewing of the photo. For example, say Jimmy sends John an Instagram Direct photo of a hot dog. John opens the photo to view it, and the read receipt on the photo notifies Jimmy that John has opened it. If Jimmy swipes the message to delete it from his inbox as John gazes upon the hot dog, John’s viewing experience will be interrupted by a “This photo has been deleted” dialog. The photo is also no longer listed in John’s inbox. If Jimmy hadn’t deleted the photo, John could not himself delete it, only “hide” it in his inbox.
Not only can a message be deleted prior to viewing, but senders can fully operate on their own regret: if they send a picture and no longer want the recipient to see it, they can confirm via the read receipt it hasn’t yet been viewed and then remove it from the recipient’s inbox.
This type of ephemerality may be less intentional than just a consequence of being an offshoot of Instagram proper. Likewise, a photo deleted from one’s own profile removes it from the feed of all that person’s followers. It’s similar to sharing a Facebook photo or Google+ post privately, but deleting those items will not pull them out from under viewers who have them open already.
This is both more and less control than Snapchat offers: if Instagram users want to ensure a photo is seen for only an instant, they have to babysit their message and wait for the recipient to open it. The Instagram Direct deletion process also requires a fair bit more dexterity and labor than Snapchat’s timer does. But Instagram Direct senders also hold that delete button for as long as the photo exists.
Of course, ephemerality on either Snapchat or Instagram is a fuzzy concept. While Instagram prevents users from directly saving any Instagram files, including messages, users can still screenshot them or take photos with secondary devices. These workarounds have become common techniques among some of Snapchat’s more illicit users. Instagram Direct is new today, so whether it will actually capture any of Snapchat’s audience is not yet clear. But the app turns out to be a slightly better competitor than it seemed at first.