New Instagram Feature: The Logic Of Online Visibility

Not too long ago Instagram announced you would now be able to see when people in your direct messages (DMs) are online. A lot of people ask me why social networks do this. Why would you want to see who is online? What's the game? Here's a closer look at the advantages of a feature that shows you who is online, both for Instagram and for you.

What's this New Feature?

When your friends are online and on Instagram, you can now see a green dot next to their profile picture. You can see this 'in various spaces within the app'  according to Instagram but mostly in DMs. You will only see status for friends who follow you or people who you have talked to in DMs. If you want to you can hide your own status and turn off the ability to see when your friends are active but I think this feature is opt-out, rather than opt-in.

Why Does it Exist?

Speaking generally, this all feeds into Instagram's growing convergence with the mighty Facebook — who have been doing this since God was a boy — but it nods to something deeper too.

The way most social media platforms are designed is to keep you online. The longer you interact with the network, the more ads you can view, the more potential revenue the app can make. Make no mistake, you're still the product when it comes to social media. With the recent advent of acts like GDPR you're have more control of what the app can use when it comes to data but you're still the product.

                                                        Source:  Instagram Press Center

                                                       Source: Instagram Press Center

Asking Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest to change this would be asking them to create an entirely new architecture for their networks. You being the product isn't just a nice afterthought but something that was written into the very fabric of them a long time ago. Incidentally, if you don't want to be the product there are several blockchain social media networks that try to use cryptocurrency, instead of ads, to keep themselves going.

When it comes to features like this it feeds into the FOMO (fear of missing out) culture Facebook (and now Instagram) seeks to create. Maybe you only go into your DMs to look at a specific conversation but then, hey, your best buddy is also online and it's be rude not to acknowledge them right? And, look, your close work friend is also online and you just want to send them a funny pic you saw recently. And oh wow somehow you've spent hours just messaging people.

This is exactly how and why Facebook were able to roll out Messenger as a separate product to Facebook, with ads, and keep it growing. People like talking. We are literally hard-wired to connect.

So Why Is It Any Good?

Look, social media apps are mirrors of the world and like any reflection there are shades of grey mixed into what we experience. No culture is all good, and neither are these apps all great.

Having said that, this online feature has uses beyond keeping you online.

  1. Capturing the Nuances of Language: When you're making a plan with a friend, sometimes it helps to know whether they're ignoring you or not actually on the app. When you're complaining or just talking to a business or professional, the same applies. Like it or not, this one tiny feature is really great at helping us with some of the nuances of language that can be lost online.  I've not read your message and I'm online can speak volumes when you want it to. Sure, it can still mean a myriad of things — maybe the person is busy and they'll read it when they have a moment or maybe they're just ignoring you.
  2. Knowing Who to Send Stories to: I've struggled with this one for a long time. You don't  want to send time sensitive stories to people who aren't going to see them until it's too late.
  3. Luring in the Lurkers: I'm definitely a lurker when the mood strikes me, more so on Facebook than any other platform. Some people lurk because they don't want to be seen, but others like me, well, we're open to conversation. This feature can be a way of showing my friends that I'm literally on Instagram all of the time and they can DM me whenever.

What do you think of this new feature for Instagram?