Instagram launches Threads, a Close Friends chat app with auto-status

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What if Instagram could automatically tell you’re Close Friends you’re (home), (working), (on the move), or (chilling and might want to hang out)? That’s the idea behind Instagram’s new companion app Threads, a Close Friends-only messaging experience that opens to the camera with shortcuts for instantly sending specific people photos and videos. Threads offers two brand new features called Status and Auto-Status that allow you to manually set an emoji as an away message to show Close Friends what you’re up to, or opt in to letting Instagram select one automatically based on your location, accelerometer, and even your phone’s battery level.

Launching globally today on iOS and Android, this is Facebook and Instagram’s next big swing at Snapchat, specifically targeting its top use case: rapid-fire camera and text messaging with your best friends. Sick of randos in your inbox? Only people in your Instagram Close Friends list show up in Threads so you can trust its notifications are important. You can still just use Instagram Direct in the main app or the two in parallel, though.

What’s most unique is that Threads finally sees the launch the Facebook “Your Emoji” status feature we reported it was prototyping 18 months ago. Threads Status and Auto-Status offer conversation starters, contextual clues to why someone might not respond, and opportunities to meet up offline. But importantly, it leaves out a map or any exact location sharing to avoid being creepy and instead focus on what Close Friends are up to — which determines if they can chat or hang out more than where they are.

Threads offers “persistent connection”, Instagram’s Director of consumer product management Robby Stein tells me. It was designed with three priorities: the ability to “fully control who can reach you”, speed because “If most of your messages only go to a couple of people, why isn’t the expedience built around that?”, and “Having more of a connection through the data . . . even if you don’t have time for a conversation.”

By building Threads as a separate app, Instagram has little to lose if it flops and could learn about what features to pull back into its main app. But if it succeeds, Threads cement itself as where you stay in touch with your favorite people, while pigeonholing other messaging options like SMS, WeChat, as Snapchat as noisy channels full of unwanted alerts.

Close Friends Only

Social networks have an inevitable problem. Eventually out of coincidence and courtesy, you add too many people as friends, filling the apps with people who’s content you don’t care about and who’s messages you don’t always want. Facebook, the catch-all network for everything from family to bosses to acquaintances. That leads people to feel uncomfortable sharing too much, and to distrust that the notifications they get are important.

Now Instagram is doubling-down on Close Friends which launched last November at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin to let you secretly set a special group of best pals who get to see special Stories you set as visible to only them. Facebook had tried complicated Lists products in the past and never seen them gain significant traction because it’s too tough to keep track of who’s in each. Instagram nailed the concept with a single list you edit as needed, though people don’t know if they’re added or removed. I’m surprised Facebook doesn’t already have its own Close Friends feature and it’d be smart to build one.

Instagram already tried building its own standalone Direct messaging app, but shut it down after low usage since it didn’t offer anything beyond what you already got in the main app. Casey Newton of The Verge reported Instagram was building an app with automatic activity sharing in August.

Now with Threads, Close Friends creates the foundation for something different. The only entries in your inbox are Close Friends, which you can edit in the app with the list syncing with your list on Instagram. You can hide any of those chats or group chats with exclusively close friends if you don’t want to see them.

When you open Threads, you’ll see open immediately to the camera like Snapchat. At the bottom are “Camera Shortcuts” that show friends’ faces you can tap on to send a photo or tap and hold for a video. You can also tap the “default camera” shutter and the select everyone you want to message. Swiping up reveals the Threads inbox, where you can tap into a conversation for a full-featured messaging experience just like in Instagram Direct.

For now, Instagram tells me there’s no plan to monetize Threads or show ads in it. In fact, Facebook won’t even use the exact locations pulled from the app to power ad targeting. Coordinates are only sent so it can match them to locations like a movie theater to show you’re at the movies. Facebook won’t store the locations and they only stay on your device for a short period before they’re deleted.

Still, Auto-Status is sure to rile some who think Facebook and Instagram are too creepy to give any more data. But if the convenience of knowing your friend is available to hang out or is probably too stressed for a chat outweighs the company’s toxic brand, Instagram could develop an important new social behavior. Even if it doesn’t monetize it directly, Threads could keep users locked into the Insta ecosystem where they’ll see plenty of feed and Story ads between message bouts.

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