Much of the content of the World Wide Web, from approximately 1990 to the early 2000s, was communications in and among small groups of people. It was discussion boards and blog communities: stuff that may have been findable, sure, with a targeted Google search, but that was created with the assumption of being seen only by a small number of people. As Clay Shirky summed it up in his 2009 book Here Comes Everybody: "Since we're so unused to communications media and broadcast media being mixed together, we think that everyone is now broadcasting. This is a mistake."
The rise of social networks, however, has made that assumption much less mistaken: For business reasons that are both obvious and less so, they have tended to treat publicness as implicit in our communications. Facebook began as a limited network but expanded into a much more public one, tweaking its privacy features along the way. Twitter tries to merge default (Library of Congress!) and more streamlined access to users' tweets by its "follow" architecture and DM capabilities. Google+ has tried to expand that streamlining idea further with its "Circles" framework—to, of course, limited success. As a result, the communicative default is much more public than it used to be. Tweets, blog posts, Instagrams: these are easily accessible to a global audience. The World Wide Web, and all that.
I mention all this because of Instagram Direct, the new messaging service (the Facebook-owned) Instagram announced today. The service lets users share private-skewing images and videos—as it puts it, "moments in our lives that we want to share, but that will be the most relevant only to a smaller group of people"—with a select assortment of fellow users, privately. (As the service does not put it: These moments, at least some of them, will likely involve porn.)
Instagram's Kevin Systrom, describing the new feature in a press event this morning, called Instagram Direct "revolutionary." To be clear: It is not. It is pretty much the opposite of that. As Peter Kafka points out, it is offering the same groundbreaking functionality that even a dumb phone offers: sending pictures to a select group of people. Nothing to see here, folks—except for, maybe, some photos of your friend's new puppy. Because awwww.
But while Instagram Direct is not revolutionary, it is concessionary. And in, I think, a way that is telling. Because—back to those other social networks—it's a tricky game those networks are playing. Skew too public (hello there, Facebook) and you erode user trust. Skew too private, and you hinder your ability to expand as a service and data-generator. So one of the biggest challenges facing the major (and the trying-to-be-major) social networks is a structural one: How do you build yourself up and out in ways that balance users' desire for intimacy with their desire for publicity? How to you merge the web's ability to create communities with its ability to create universalities?
You know how you can send pictures and texts to your friends, using your phone? Now you can do that on Instagram, using your phone.— Peter Kafka (@pkafka) December 12, 2013
You could read Direct as Instagram's (and Facebook's) latest attempt to navigate that tension. The service is, basically, attempting to add a layer of privacy to its existing, public-leaning architecture. But Instagram isn't just Snapchatting itself. It's offering its users a Snapchat-like functionality within the context of its much more public social network. It's trying to have it both ways—cynically, but perhaps ingeniously—by offering a refuge of privateness within a very public service.
And it will, of course, be gathering data across all the streams, regardless. Cynical/ingenious!
Facebook once reportedly tried to buy Snapchat for $3 billion; and it's notable how unapologetically Snapchatty Instagram Direct is in its own architecture. (With one exception: "What's really important to Instagram is that you get to revisit these moments," Systrom said of the Direct-ed images and videos. Which: burn, or something.) It's also ironic—and telling—that Instagram's announcement follows Twitter's own announcement, made on Tuesday, that it will be allowing users to send images over DM. Twitter is Instagramming, Instagram is Twittering, Facebook is Instagramming—which means, transitively, that Facebook is also Twittering. And the relatively established networks are all, in their way, Snapchatting. And YouTubing. And Tumbling. And WhatsApping. Etc.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery; it may also, in this case, be the quickest way to homogenization. Because the networks' recombinatorial efforts—acquisitions! straight-up impersonations!—are leading us, ironically, to a kind of infrastructural monoculture. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube (and maybe even Pinterest, and maybe even Snapchat, and maybe even WhatsApp) are giving way to Facetwitterest. Or Instapintertube. Or Snaptumblrface. Or what have you. In their attempts to serve the biggest audiences possible, the networks—the services that are exerting more and more of their influence on the workings of the web—are becoming both more complex and more standardized. They're battling for the same audiences, in the same ways. And in a way that carries a fairly terrifying upshot: Only one, realistically, can win.