Instagram today is introducing Threads, a messaging app designed to be used only by your closest friends. The app’s existence, which The Verge first uncovered in August, is a companion for Instagram that lets you quickly share text, photos, and videos with your “close friends” list. It also invites constant, passive sharing of your location, status, and other intimate data, which both invites privacy concerns and causes some people to reconsider how they’re using that close friends list.
Threads has three core components. The first is the camera, which is the default screen when you open the app. It’s just for taking photos and videos. There are no filters here. The app also offers customizable shortcuts for your close friends, so that if you primarily use the app to message two or three people, you can put their profile picture right on the bottom of the camera screen. Take your picture, tap their photo, and swipe up to send. In a demonstration, taking and sending a photo was remarkably fast.
The second component of Threads is the inbox, which mirrors your direct messages on Instagram but is limited to your close friends. That means it will likely be the shortest inbox in your life — the average user of the close friends list has between one and two dozen people on it, says Robby Stein, who leads product development for Instagram’s consumer app. It includes group chats, but only if everyone involved is a close friend of yours.
Finally, there’s the status screen, which seems likely to be the most controversial aspect of Threads. It’s a modern-day take on the away message that builds on some previous Facebook efforts to bring back AOL away message-style status updates to the social network. To create a status, you pick an emoji and type out a few words or choose from among the many pre-populated statuses that Instagram has created. Then you tell Instagram how long to keep your status visible (from one to four hours).
Or — and here’s what Instagram actually wants — you can opt in to “auto status,” which will refresh your status throughout the day as you move about your life. It will learn when you’re at home and at work, for example, and update accordingly. Instagram says it won’t store your exact location, but rather uses the information to create “context.” If you’re at home, you might want to go out, the thinking goes; if you’re at work, you’re probably stuck for a while.
In all cases, the company says, your status will only be seen by your close friends.
The privacy implications are significant, which is probably why Instagram wrote a separate blog post about Threads privacy in conjunction with today’s launch. Here’s what the company said about how it uses your data if you opt in to sharing your status continuously:
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.
That’s a lot of data to give up, and after years of Facebook scandals related to data privacy issues, some users might find that the trade-off isn’t worth it. But it’s also worth noting that other messaging apps, most notably Snapchat, essentially ask for the same permissions. Snapchat won’t generate an automatic status for you throughout the day, but it will put you on a map with all your friends if you let it. Ultimately, whether you opt in to features like these depends heavily on whether your social circle does.
Threads represents Instagram’s latest effort to build a companion messaging product to build on the direct messages it already has — and to blunt the momentum of Snapchat, which remains popular with young people in part because of its lightning-fast, camera-focused messaging. In May, Instagram stopped working on Direct, a standalone messaging app that it had been working on since 2017. The reason was simple: people in markets where it was being tested hated having to switch back and forth between apps to interact with their friends and followers.
But Instagram couldn’t afford to give up on a messaging app. Messaging is the glue that keeps people’s eyeballs fixed to their screens for several hours a day, and having a messaging product confined to a tab within the main app put significant constraints on what Instagram designers could do with it. And so the company kept searching for another solution.
The result feels like an Instagram-flavored take on Snapchat messaging. Messaging is, after all, the lifeblood of Snapchat, and it has long encouraged users to add only their close friends to the service. That has let the company build products that require significant trust between users, such as sharing their location continuously on the Snap Map. By introducing a messaging product for close friends only, Instagram is trying to replicate that experience.
Threads arrives at an important time for Instagram, which feels like it’s rapidly transforming into two separate beasts. The first is a shopping mall where influencers hawk clothes, makeup, and diet pills; and the second is a more intimate app for conversations between friends and family. Those two things can coexist, but it might be easier for the second one to succeed if it had a dedicated home. Threads represents an effort to be that home.