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Instagram Direct and the new economics of chat

Instagram on your Facebook. Instagram looking more like SnapChat... Are social media applications all starting to look the same? 

Instagram, the social media photo sharing site, has introduced a new feature -- Instagram Direct. Normally, if you post a video or photo with the service, anyone (and I mean anyone) can see it. Starting today, you can share your snapshots and comments back-and-forth in real time -- only with the users you want. 

If you’re wondering if Instagram’s new private feature was motivated by concerns about privacy...the answer is, not so much.

“I really believe that this new feature that Instagram has released is about competition,” says Brian Blau, research director in consumer technologies with Gartner, a technology research firm, "It's about 'me too.'"

Blau points out that Facebook, which owns Instagram, had tried to buy Snapchat, a photo and messaging service, for billions of dollars. So if you can't buy 'em -- build the same features on your site so your users don't leave.  

"They’re all starting to look the same. These services are really starting to be homogenous, starting to look like one big pile of goop," Blau says. "That probably isn’t good for them."

Instagram’s game of copycat, says Julie Ask, a principal analyst with Forrester research, is actually part of a larger phenomenon.

"What's happening now is there's lot of applications that want to become platforms," she says. "They want to become that interface between the consumer and the phone-that-does-all-things."

Ask says in order to reach 'platform' status, companies are willing to take some risks -- like offering similar features. 

"It's a very powerful thing, it's something that they can monetize if they can achieve it and so the stakes are very high. So while there is a chance that all of these services begin to seem the same, you've got to take a shot," she says.

Ask notes that while Instagram has 80 million users, WeChat, an app popular in Asia, has attracted hundreds of millions and in the process gained coveted 'platform' status.

"I used WeChat in Beijing a month ago," she says, "and we ordered takeout food from a micro app within WeChat."

Ask says the Americans needs to catch up with the global market for mobile technology.

"We don’t write about it because we don’t see it and live it every day," says Ask. "But if you go to Korea, or Indonesia, or the Philippines or China, that’s where you’re engaging everyday. That’s your environment, that’s where your friends are."

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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