Don’t write eulogies for Instagram just yet.
While some have already declared that Instagram is “over,” as The Atlantic’s Kate Lindsay recently wrote, the platform may instead be going through a midlife crisis.
The photo-sharing app has tried on several new identities since its launch in 2010. It’s mimicked Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, and more recently, BeReal. Through all of its phases and tweaks to its algorithm, influencers and business owners have adapted (and re-adapted) to the platform.
One use case for Instagram in particular has picked up steam, according to creator industry insiders: Finding people, following them, and connecting over a DM.
Sounds like LinkedIn, no? But when you meet someone new, where do you often go to add them? For many, especially those in the broader creator ecosystem, that answer is Instagram.
“Instagram has replaced business cards,” influencer Austen Tosone recently told Insider. “It’s that first impression, that community hub, that place where someone can go and in one second get a glimpse of ‘Who is this person?'”
“It’s like a Rolodex,” said Christen Nino De Guzman, a creator, startup founder, and former employee at both TikTok and Instagram. “It’s a directory of everyone I know in different categories of my life from family to personal relationships to former coworkers to people that are just in my same industry.”
For other creators like Tejas Hullur, Instagram is the primary platform for DMs. It’s also where he connects with other creators.
And for business owners, it can be just as important.
“I could not do my business without Instagram DMs,” said Eric Wei, a former Instagram staffer who left to found creator economy fintech startup Karat.
Over the past few years, Instagram has leaned more into its messaging tools. Businesses can set up a streamlined DM inbox, brands can now ink partnerships with influencers through the app’s Creator Marketplace, and creators can start paywalled group chats through Subscriptions.
Doubling down on messaging and developing tools to amplify the ways creators use Instagram as a business card could buy Meta some time as it races to keep users engaged. It could also become a big business itself.
Cracking how to monetize messaging isn’t so straightforward. For instance, Meta has struggled to turn its $22 billion acquisition of WhatsApp into a major business.
More recently, however, Meta has prioritized ways to monetize its ecosystem of messaging tools across Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Particularly, the company has its eyes on the overlap between commerce and conversations.
This year, Meta hosted “Conversations” in May, a developer event focused on business messaging, after canceling its annual and broader developer event, F8.
Mark Shmulik, a senior analyst at investment firm AB Bernstein, took this as a signal.
“It was an interesting indicator of where they want the independent developer community to be spending their time — and what’s important to them,” Shmulik told Insider.
During Meta’s earning calls, messaging has also taken center stage, Shmulik highlighted.
“Beyond Reels, messaging is another major monetization opportunity,” Mark Zuckerberg told investors during Meta’s Q3 earnings call in October. Click-to-Messaging ads, which brands can use to direct users to DMs via ads, is one of Meta’s “fastest growing ads products,” Zuckerberg said.
“We’re really bullish on where paid messaging can go over the next several years,” Meta’s CFO David Werhner added on the same call.
Heading into 2022, messaging was one of Instagram’s top priorities (alongside Reels, its TikTok competitor).
“We think Instagram can be the best place for people to connect with their friends about their interests,” head of Instagram Adam Mosseri said in a video at the end of December 2021. And earlier in 2021, when Mosseri declared that Instagram was no longer just a photo-sharing app, he said that the action of sharing content on Instagram had moved away from the feed or stories, and into DMs.
“As more social interactions move to messaging, we’re developing a flywheel between discovery and messaging that are going to make these apps stronger,” Zuckerberg said on the October call. “On Instagram alone, people already reshare Reels 1 billion times a day through DMs.”
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Meta is growing its suite of messaging offerings on Instagram. This year, Instagram rolled out Subscriptions, a new way for creators to monetize their content and interactions with fans. The feature offers a way for creators to launch paywalled perks like group chats within the app. Meta has said it won’t take any cuts from Subscriptions until 2024.
Paywalled content platforms like Patreon and community-interaction apps like Discord have already become creator favorites. And Meta is likely watching closely.
“TikTok has effectively shown Meta how quickly another company can come in with a slightly different feature or way to use the product and take timeshare from these users,” Shmulik said. “They’re trying to move a little bit quicker to replicate some of those style features to see if it does in fact gain traction with their core audience.”
Meanwhile, Instagram appears to be developing “message highlights” and “roll call,” two new messaging features, according to reverse-engineered prototypes shared by mobile-developer Alessandro Paluzzi. Highlights appear to be categories to sort messages (similar to Stories highlights), while the roll call prototype looks like a BeReal-meets-Snapchat messaging interaction that prompts group chat members to send a photo or video within a timeframe.
Meta did not provide an on-record comment about these prototypes when contacted by Insider.
“Instagram should lean into more features that highlight or make it easy for people to connect with or message others,” Nino De Guzman said.
Perhaps one of Facebook’s and Instagram’s earlier mottos — “Bringing you closer to the people and things you love” — could see a reprise.