Snapshots spark up chat on Facebook’s Instagram

New feature lets users send photos and videos directly to their friends, as it steps up competition against upstart messaging services such as Snapchat.

Instagram chief executive co-founder Kevin Systrom speaks during the launch of the new service named Instagram Direct in New York. Lucas Jackson / Reuters
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Facebook’s Instagram mobile photo-sharing application now lets users send photos and videos directly to their friends, as it steps up competition against upstart messaging services such as Snapchat.

The feature, introduced last week, is called Instagram Direct and pops up in an icon on a user’s home feed. The tool lets people send photos and videos directly to as many as 15 friends, who can then discuss them using familiar features such as comments and the like button.

“It’s like gathering people around a photo, a moment, and being able to have a conversation about them,” says Kevin Systrom, the chief executive of Instagram.

Instagram is adding tools to fend off increasing competition from Twitter and newer messaging start-ups, including WhatsApp, Kik Interactive and Snapchat, all of which have garnered large user bases. Facebook last month offered to buy Snapchat, which lets users send photos that disappear once they’re viewed, for about US$3 billion and was turned down, an insider revealed.

“This new Instagram feature is kind of like Snapchat without the snap, or like Twitter direct messages, but with a group,” says Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner. “It’s like everybody is getting together and thinking: ‘How can we offer the same thing?’ The features themselves are cool but companies are having a hard time offering anything innovative or different.”

While Instagram may keep developing new capabilities, such as the ability to draw on photos, it’s unlikely to make messages disappear like Snapchat does, Mr Systrom says. Instagram’s service is more suited to being an archive, he adds.

“Snapchat has their own market and they are going after it in a really unique way,” he adds. “The way we’ve done it is just very different.”

However, Facebook’s dominance in social media has shown some vulnerabilities with teenagers in recent months. While usage among US teens was relatively stable during the third quarter on Facebook, there was a decline among younger teenagers who log on daily, the chief financial officer David Ebersman revealed recently.

Q&A: moments faithfully captured

When did Facebook take over Instagram?

Facebook, whose social network has more than 1 billion members, purchased Instagram for about US$700 million last year. It’s using the app to help it reach users on smartphones and tablets. The company has been updating the service, including adding the ability to take videos. In October, Instagram started letting advertisers deliver pictures to its 150 million users.

How is Twitter competing with all of this?

Last week the microblogging service that lets people post 140-character status updates, photos and videos, started letting users add pictures to their direct messages.

And what’s new on Facebook itself?

The California-based company has occasionally been unsuccessful in developing internal products to quash competition. Facebook last year unveiled Poke, which lets people send messages, videos or photos that are available only for as long as 10 seconds. The service is meant to be used like Snapchat. While the Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat apps are among the top 20 free programmes in Apple’s App Store, Poke doesn’t make the list.

Anything else up their sleeves?

Facebook is working on infusing its social network’s software with artificial intelligence. The company is hiring the professor Yann LeCun of New York University’s Center for Data Science to head up a new artificial intelligence lab, aiming to use cutting-edge science to make Facebook more interesting and relevant.