The One Big Flaw in Instagram's New Private-Messaging App

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 12 2013 1:41 PM

Instagram's New Private-Messaging Feature Is Tragically Unverbable

Kevin Systrom launches Instagram Direct
Has Kevin Systrom lost his poetic touch?

Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

At a shmancy event in New York this morning, chief Instagrammer Kevin Systrom unveiled to the press the company’s big new feature—a way to share photos and videos privately and directly with friends, groups of friends, randos, lovers, and stalkees. It’s called Instagram Direct—and that's it's biggest problem.

The feature a little like Twitter’s Direct Messages, except that you can’t just send text—you have to share a photo or video. Or perhaps it’s like Snapchat, except that the photos and videos don’t disappear after 10 seconds—you’d better make sure you look goood before you hit “send” on that selfie. Or maybe it’s like text messaging, except that—well, actually, it’s pretty much the same as text messaging.

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Anyway, the feature seems useful, if not exactly “revolutionary,” as Systrom tried to claim. (His press appearances are always noteworthy for their striking resemblance to postmodern poetry. ) It’s prettily designed, easy to use, and is likely to come in handy for photos that you want to share with a group of people but not with the whole world. Or, sure, for sexts, if you’re not into the whole ephemerality thing. From a business-strategy standpoint, it's a great defensive maneuver against upstart private-messaging apps like Whatsapp and Path.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

But there’s one big difference between all of those other successful messaging services and this one: the name. Instagram Direct sounds more like a grocery-delivery service than a hip new app. The worst part, though, is that it’s completely, positively unverbable. It stubbornly resists any efforts to turn it into a verb.

IM me” is a classic. “DM me” works fine. “Snapchat me” is perfectly snappy.  “Gchat me,” “text me,” and “call me” are utilititarian and concise. What the heck are you supposed to say if you want someone to send you a photo via Instagram Direct? Some ideas:

  • “Instagram Direct me” (too unwieldy)
  • “Direct me” (too subservient)
  • “ID me” (semantically ambiguous)

What does that leave? “Send me a photo via Instagram Direct?” Is that what the cool kids are going to be whispering to each other in the halls of the local junior high?

I asked Instagram’s Tyson Wheatley about this problem, and he admitted there may be no great way to verb the new feature’s name. “Share a moment with me?” he suggested. (Not until I get to know you better, Tyson!)

Wheatley explained that the goal with the name "Instagram Direct" was just to clearly convey the nature and purpose of the product. That’s admirable, but I’d submit that clearly conveying a product’s nature is not what makes app names stick in the Internet era. “Google” says nothing about the search engine’s purpose, but it’s easy and fun to say, and eminently verbable. (Note that Google itself recently violated this principle, however, by replacing Gchats with Hangouts. "Hangout me?" Really, Google?)

Verbing weirds language, but it also successes messaging apps. If Instagram wants Direct to catch on, it had better hope its young users come up with some better verbs for it than I or Wheatley have so far. If you think of one, feel free to email me—or, um, Livefyre it in our comments section.

Previously in Slate:

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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