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Twitter wants to be a messaging app, Instagram wants to be a snapchat. And that's missing the point...

(Posted on Dec 20, 2013 at 12:01PM )
Of course Snapchat turning down a US$3-billion offer from Facebook has made everyone sit up and take notice. That’s real money, even for the Valley.

Is it a surprise that Twitter last week moved direct messaging to the timeline? Is it a surprise that it’s added photo messaging to DMs? Is it a surprise that Instagram launched private (‘Direct’) messaging? No. No. No. And it’s also not a surprise that those two companies unveiled these features within a day of each other.

It’s a fight for attention. Right now, there’s no winner takes all. Even WhatsApp (ironically the least innovative app) has only 300 million-odd active users. That’s what, 10%, 15% of the current addressable market? The market is simply too big for one app/platform to win.

And there’s no shortage of platforms and apps fighting for that attention. Facebook, Snapchat, Line, WeChat, Kik, WhatsApp, BBM, Viber, Mxit, Skype, Kakao… The average user has around a handful of these apps installed and they use each of them for different things. They might use WhatsApp for messaging, Facebook for sharing with family and close friends, Snapchat for sharing pics and moments, Skype for work…

Obviously each of these platforms wants that pool of users to spend more time in the app, to use it more often… In order to do that, many of these apps are adding every conceivable feature, trying to be everything to everyone. And that’s where the problem starts.

This is not about ticking use-case boxes on a whiteboard and making sure that the entire grid is ticked.

By doing this, the product owners are losing sight of what these apps and platforms are being ‘hired’ by their users to do. It makes WhatsApp’s ‘lack’ of innovation beyond the core — a messaging app — even more impressive. To have the self-restraint not to wander down each of these paths is remarkable.

So what of Instagram Direct?

Yes, it’s version one of private messaging, but I still get the feeling that co-founder Kevin Systrom is missing a trick here. What are Instagram’s 150-million users doing in the app? They’re broadcasting moments (and because of its roots, many of those moments are beautifully composed and edited snapshots of sunsets, food… and cat pictures).

The key here is ‘broadcasting’. Instagram, like Twitter, is a broadcast medium. One to many. With Direct, Instagram’s trying to add on “narrowcasting” — a one-to-one feature. The question has to be asked: why would a user use Direct instead of sharing a picture (‘moment’) via WhatsApp or WeChat or Snapchat? Does Instagram have to try and be everything to everyone?

The feature itself is limiting. I can send a friend a picture as a direct message. Their only option is to respond to that with a photo. And that’s not how the world works. That’s not even how Instagram works — it has comments and likes! Perhaps there is a place for Direct (I doubt its going to find traction among the majority of those 150-million users), but expect some revisions to the feature in the months ahead.

(I wonder how much ‘input’ owner Facebook had in the need to launch Instagram Direct?)

The Twitter change (in Version 6.0 of its apps) is more perplexing. It has taken a feature in DMs that’s been deliberately hidden for years and put it front and centre? Why? Has it thought this through? Is this a move to appease Wall Street? To try and participate in a sector that’s the hottest thing around currently?

Again, Twitter is confusing broadcast and narrowcast. And by pulling both into the same stream, is at risk of confusing users even more. What would make a user choose to send a direct (P2P) message to someone on Twitter versus on a ‘dedicated’ messaging app? I’m not certain there are too many reasons to?

Instagram and Twitter are at risk of straying away from what their hundreds of millions of users hire them to do. At best, their users will ignore (and hardly use) these added features. At worst, these platforms could try ram them down their users’ throats and alienate them. Nothing — save perhaps Facebook — is sticky enough to keep users from abandoning the platform for something else.

By Hilton Tarrant: Columnist