April 22, 2020

Putting the “Social” Back in Social Media

How Subtle Instagram Changes Hint at the Future of Social Networks

The past six weeks have changed everything about American life, media consumption included. We’ve seen Zoom use increase twenty-fold, online chat shoot up 50%, and Instagram/Facebook/WhatsApp time-on-site climb 70%.

During this same time, Instagram released some small but telling features. Likely in development before COVID-19 fueled the need to connect digitally, the implications of these new features reveal, nonetheless, a lot about the future of social media.

New Video-Chat Features
Instagram has had a video-chat feature since June of 2018, but late last month it added a new element: co-watching. Also known as “co-sharing” or “media sharing,” co-watching allows form one to six users/video chatters to view an Instagram Feed post together. You can share your saved content, liked content, or some random suggested posts. You cannot co-watch Instagram Stories, anything private, an entire feed or profile, or IGTV. Co-watching is buried in a complex nesting-doll feature set—that is, it takes place within a video chat, which is itself within direct messages, which is itself within the Instagram app.

Instagram has been testing this feature for over a year, but chose to quietly release it as part of a larger package of changes and tweaks that help users stay connected in these strange times. Given the enormous spike in the use of video-chat services since stay-at-home directives were issued, Instagram didn’t want to miss out on any opportunity to acquire new users or grow engagement among its pre-COVID-19 user base.

Both Instagram co-watching and its cousin Facebook Watch Parties put the “social” back in “social media.” Consuming social media is typically a passive, solitary activity that isolates people. Studies show higher social media use correlates with poorer mental health particularly in teens. But when people use social media together, it can lead to longer time-on-site and hopefully even alleviate some of the negative feelings associated with solo social scrolling.

Ripping Off Squad and Its Shared Consumption Model
Now, don’t think for a second that FACEBOOK is actually doing something warm and fuzzy merely for the wellbeing of its users. Instagram co-watching is a direct rip-off of another trendy app, Squad; much like how Instagram Stories were a direct rip-off of Snapchat that hindered Snap’s growth for years.

Squad is an app that allows users to video chat (not surprisingly) up to six people, who can screenshare any app on their phone to the chat. That means the group in the app can collectively look at, and discuss, Instagram, TikTok, even Tinder. Think of it like Twitch for gossiping teenagers. This fundamentally changes the way that users engage on Instagram, as it allows them to enjoy the app together – to share and discuss the content. This also mimics what younger users do when they get together in person; that is, watch YouTube videos, scroll through their photos, and look at social media content. This essential shift is important enough that Instagram will likely want to internalize the new behavior for itself. It wouldn’t be the first time it has devoured an up and coming app.

Instagram is Subtly Merging its Messaging Platforms
In addition to the shared consumption of content, another consequence of Instagram’s new feature set is the subtle merging of its messaging platforms. Specifically, Instagram has housed co-watching within its video chat feature, which is itself within the direct messaging platform. In combination, these elements are now present in Instagram Direct. In mid-April, Instagram made its direct messaging (though not video chat or co-watching parts of Direct) available via desktop, which was previously app-only. The company also made it possible to watch IGTV Live on desktop.

Both of these small changes may be quarantine-inspired: users are spending more time on their computers and less on their mobile devices as a result of being at home. However, these features may also be inspired by FACEBOOK’s long-term initiative to merge messaging across its three major platforms. Mark Zuckerberg has promised to make messaging between Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp secure and cross-compatible. The current phase of this messaging singularity appears to be synching the feature sets of the three sites. Over 2020 and 2021, we expect to see the feature sets of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp messaging become nearly identical.

As social distancing gets hundreds of millions of new users to adapt to video chat, we can be certain that some of them will stick once the measures are lifted. Companies are using this time to acquire new users, build new behaviors, and strengthen usage habits. If you look carefully, Instagram and FACEBOOK are quietly introducing their future: merged messaging and more human connection.

Lauren Kozak, the author of In Search of an Audience: Quibi’s Post-Pandemic Prospects, User Adoption and Trends in Social Streaming, IGTV, & Facebook Watch, and The Ascent of the Social TV Engager, is our Senior Advisor on Social Media, Analytics, and User Behavior. She has previously held positions for the Los Angeles Times, Tribune Publishing, and Britney Spears.

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