It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But with the introduction of Instagram Direct, it begs the question: has the photo-sharing app hit its peak?


A simple pattern emerges when you compare Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Each is a gesture toward escaping the overwrought structure of the other through ruthless simplification.

Instagram carved out the extraneous article linking, side apps, and creepily hollow lifeline by focusing only on pictures. Snapchat cut even deeper, rebelling against the archiving itself, freeing users from having to double- and triple-think how they would be perceived through their data, and instead encouraged an improvisatory free-for-all where impulse mattered more than interpretation. In predictable fashion, the more successful a company is in separating itself from the market leader, the more desirable it becomes for acquisition.

Ironically, this phenomenon only leads companies to pay for things that they already have. Since Facebook couldn’t buy what it already had from Snapchat earlier this year, it has instead paid for Instagram to rebuild a feature that Facebook has already built with Instagram Direct. The new feature will allow Instagram users to privately send photos to specific friends without having to worry about them being logged into their main photo archive. The feature is new to Instagram, and directly mimics Snapchat, but redundant to almost every other communication technology of the last decade. 

You can’t buy cool when people have decided cool is anything that isn’t you. Its not photosharing or direct messanging, or new kinds of digital hangouts that kids want, it’s just a place that’s away from Facebook.

Targeted photo sharing has been a feature in every cell phone I’ve owned over the last ten years. The pleasure of sending outwardly incomplete messages and images to those I know will be able to make sense of, or appreciate, them has probably been the best thing that’s come from having a mini-computer in my pocket at all times. The work calls, the constant email access, the maps—all of these I could have worked around with some tolerable inconvenience. But not the years of sending blurry nonsense photos to friends. The playful inanity of these exchanges doesn’t repay the investment of the thousands of dollars in fees and upgrades this has cost over the years, and yet it’s the only thing that would feel like an absence were my access to the various networks that run through my various smartphones all shut down. And all this from primitive text messages.

Facebook attempted to co-opt these ownerless exchanges into a business model, taking what people already had and selling it back to them in the form of a magical wonderbox of unbroken memories. All of its subsequent competitors have earned reputations by providing ways for memory to remain broken, left in pieces that only those involved in making it will be able to reassemble.

In the last decade, cell phones and social networks have helped revive the practice of communicating through pictograms with emoji and memes, a way of recentering culture around a network controlled by servers and algorithms instead of politics and community. These feature-races and bids to merge are ultimately more about which company should retain authority over their own network than it is about providing new services to users. The excitement over a private new way of communicating is used as bait to entreat users to affiliate themselves with one company’s network over another, and in the end all these companies are orbiting around the same collapsing blackhole of sameness, throwing money around to mimic whatever anyone does that attracts interest.

The Wall Street Journal’s Reed Albergotti describes Instagram Direct as one of the first signs of generational shift in network affiliation away from Facebook, with one recent survey finding 65 percent of people under 18 thinking Facebook has lost its “cool factor.” It’s the nature of cool factors to not come back once they’ve been lost, and the worst reaction of all is to try and mimic those who’ve out-cooled you. This may be the point where Facebook and Instagram should both admit their business models are fundamentally incompatible with “cool.”

You can’t both control the mass market and command the admiration of untamed kids who only want spaces of their own, separate from the heavy coercions of sponsored posts and algorithmically curated stories. It’s an unsolvable paradox, and one that augurs the distant, but inevitable decline of big tent social networks as a whole. You can’t buy cool when people have decided cool is anything that isn’t you. Its not photosharing or direct messanging, or new kinds of digital hangouts that kids want, it’s just a place that’s away from Facebook.

Everywhere Facebook spreads its brand is guaranteed to become a place for the old people who gave up the fight of trying to live apart from money and market manipulations years ago. And everywhere the young and adventurous discover is doomed to be permanently on the verge of being discovered by the needily rich and desperately uncool. In other words, business development executives. 

Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.