A lot has been made of Instagram copying Snapchat in the last year, but now it has a new target: Facebook.

Instagram is reportedly testing splitting out its messaging feature into a separate app. This app, called Direct, would be a "camera focused" messaging app. Instagram wants to see if its messaging feature can stand alone as a platform.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Facebook previously did the same thing with Facebook Messenger. And despite a lot of criticism from users at the time, Messenger has been a clear success, with more than 1.2 billion monthly users.

The rationale for Facebook was that its core social networking app was becoming too cluttered, and it needed a separate app in order to optimize and build on its messaging platform. Does Instagram have the same problem? Not nearly to the same degree.

Instagram really only has three main interactions: posting and viewing photos, Stories, and direct messaging.  In contrast, Facebook had dozens of different interactions, like messaging, posting links and photos, groups, pages and even a marketplace. Instagram is a much more focused, mobile-first application that doesn't suffer from clutter the same way Facebook did as it shifted from desktop to mobile.

Facebook Uber Alles

So why would Instagram think of splitting off Direct?

One reason is to try to turn Direct into a true Snapchat clone. A 'camera focused messaging app' sounds a lot like how Snapchat describes itself. The Direct app being tested even opens directly to the camera screen, as Snapchat does. Given Instagram's tendency to copy Snapchat's features, like Stories, trying to see if it can spin of Direct into a real Snapchat clone could make sense. Facebook wants to take over even more of your phone.

Another potential reason is that Facebook sees the potential to use Direct as a way to get more businesses involved in messaging. Facebook has pushed Messenger for businesses, with mixed success. Direct could be a way to bring more of them into the mix, especially as Instagram's growing popularity is making the app a core part of the social media customer service toolkit for many companies.
If Instagram is focused on becoming more of an e-commerce platform where users can buy directly - as it has toyed with in the past - then building out a more robust messaging platform makes a lot of strategic sense.

Still, it's hard to see how much value Direct will give that users can't already get from Messenger. And the user resistance to having to use Yet Another App is likely to be fairly strong.

Don't Forget Stories

Among Instagram's three core interactions, focusing on Direct is also an odd choice. The feature most crying out for attention and in need of more space is Stories, which has grown to 300 million daily active users, nearly double Snapchat's last count.

Currently, Stories (Instagram's clone of the Snapchat feature by the same name) sits in a little horizontal bar at the top of the app, and looks and feels very much like a tack-on feature despite its success.

With Snapchat recently launching a major redesign of its Stories feature, it will be interesting to see if Instagram decides to open up its own Stories platform more. But that just makes the decision to focus on Direct right now even more odd.

Unlike Stories, Direct is an interaction that fits fairly naturally within the Instagram app. From my own usage, it's mostly used as a way for users to share Instagram content with each other. Splitting out this experience might end up hurting engagement in the core Instagram app.

Today, Direct as a standalone app it's still just a very small test. Facebook tests out dozens of new features and even new apps that it quietly kills before they hit the mainstream. Instagram would undoubtedly only move forward with the change if it saw significant user engagement with the new app.

However, the decision to test out Direct now suggests a lack of focus at the company. The standalone utility for users seems unclear at best, and it still wouldn't solve Instagram's dilemma for handling Stories. In some ways, having two separate apps might make the issue even worse.

For now, we'll have to wait and see. Facebook has seen this strategy work before, but there's plenty of reasons to be skeptical this time around.

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Published on: Dec 10, 2017