Last month, The Verge reported that Instagram was working on a new messaging app for close friends, which would include a new 'Auto-Status' feature that would help to keep people updated on your movements throughout the day. Now, it's here, with Instagram's 'Threads' rolling out to all users on iOS and Android from today.
As explained by Instagram:
"Over the last few years, we’ve introduced several new ways to share visually on Instagram and connect with people you care about – from sharing everyday moments on Stories to visual messages on Direct. But for your smaller circle of friends, we saw the need to stay more connected throughout the day, so you can communicate what you’re doing and how you’re feeling through photos and videos. That’s why we built Threads, a new way to message with close friends in a dedicated, private space."
Essentially, Threads is another messaging app, with all the regular messaging features users have come to expect. Threads opens to the camera - like Snapchat - and provides quick, easy options for sending text, photo and video updates to a selected group of friends. Your contacts in Threads are defined by your Instagram 'close friends' list, meaning that the people you're connected with in Threads are only those within your inner circle.
Messages sent via Threads appear in both your Instagram Direct messages and in the Threads app, providing additional integration, as opposed to forcing you to get all your friends across to the new app straight away. And as noted by Instagram, Threads is designed for more specific, intimate communication, which aligns with internal Instagram data showing that 85% of the messages shared on Instagram are distributed to the same three friends, as opposed to people using Direct as a broader connection tool.
But where Threads looks to differentiate from other messaging apps is in its Status and Auto Status tools.
Status enables users to manually set an emoji as an away message, giving their friends a visual representation of what they’re up to at any given time. Auto Status, meanwhile, will allocate an emoji status without manual input, making an assumption based on your location, your movement, your phone’s battery level, etc.
As per Instagram:
"We’ve heard that you want an easier way to keep up with your friends throughout the day – especially when you don’t have the time to send a photo or have a conversation. That’s why we created status. You can choose from a suggested status (???? Studying), create your own (???? Procrastinating), or turn on Auto Status (???? On the move), which automatically shares little bits of context on where you are without giving away your coordinates. Only your close friends will see your status, and it’s completely opt-in."
So, a Facebook-owned app will now automatically track your everyday movements, and report them, in order to keep people updated on your activity. Seems like a logical move for a company under intense scrutiny over how it tracks people online and uses their personal data, right?
Facebook is clearly aware of the reservations people may hold in this respect, which is why it's also provided an in-depth explanation of the privacy options which Threads users have available.
In regards to auto-status, specifically, Facebook provides this overview:
"If you enable Auto Status, Threads will request your location, movement, battery level and network connection from your phone in order to determine what context to share. For example, Auto Status might use your precise location to show your friends that you’re “☕ At a cafe.” Or Auto Status might detect that you’re biking and set your status to “???? On the Move.” Before this is enabled, you’ll be told what information Auto Status is requesting and will be asked to specifically agree. Auto Status will not share your precise location with your friends, and when Threads sends location information to our server to look up locations, it’s not stored there – this information is only stored on your device for a limited time. It is also deleted if you remove Threads."
So nothing to be concerned about - and users already share somewhat similar information via Snap Map, which Snapchat users don't seem overly concerned about, so you can see why Facebook would feel comfortable including such functionality, regardless of the links to broader privacy discussions.
And Snapchat is where Facebook is aiming with Threads. Snapchat has become hugely popular for discussions with close connections, which is one of the elements often overlooked in the rise of Stories, which originated from Snap. While Stories is indeed a key app function, in its IPO documentation provided back in 2017, Snap noted that only 25% of its Daily Active Users were actually posting to their Story each day, while more than 60% were using the Camera to create Snaps.
That would suggest that a majority of Snap users are actually engaging in one-to-one connection, as opposed to public posting, an element which Instagram, given its public posting roots, hasn't been able to tap into, despite essentially taking the reigns as the leader in Stories consumption.
Threads looks to address this. By working with usage trends, and focusing on Snapchat user behaviors, Instagram is hoping that it can provide a better real-time connection solution that Snap, and stop new users from ever heading across to Ghostface Chillah and friends in the first place.
That's actually a more essential key to Threads and its potential. While some will see Threads as a way to get users to come back to Instagram from Snapchat, really, it's more about prevention and keeping users from straying to Snap in the first place.
Instagram has more users, and more global reach. If it can provide Snapchat like tools, particularly in regions where Snap hasn't yet gained traction, it will give potential users less reason to even download Snap in the first place.
In this sense, it's not about beating Snap now, but limiting its market potential, which is particularly relevant in newer regions. So even if you don't see your friends downloading and using Threads straight away, that won't really mean a lot, in terms of its success or failure - it's more of a longer-term play, which would dilute Snapchat's influence over time.
Incidentally, that's the same playbook that Instagram used with its previous Snapchat challenger - 'Direct', which it launched back in December 2017.
Direct sought to take on Snapchat 'directly', by focusing on face filters and visual tools. Instagram launched Direct in Uruguay, Chile, Turkey, Italy, Portugal and Israel, regions where Snap hadn't gained traction, but it was eventually shut down earlier this year, seemingly due to lack of use.
Threads takes a different approach, focusing more on the connective benefits of Snaps, while also being rolled out in all regions straight away. That could see it gain more traction, and as noted, slow Snapchat's potential by connecting more of your social activity within the same, larger network.
Will it work? Who knows, but what is well-documented is that Facebook really wants to crush Snapchat. Even if Threads doesn't pan out, you can expect Zuck and Co. to likely try again.