Instagram is the low-key biggest messaging app that no one talks about

Instagram logo on a Galaxy S10
Instagram logo on a Galaxy S10 (Image credit: Joe Maring / Android Central)

When it comes to messaging apps and services, there are a fair few stalwart apps you'd expect to see brought up in conversation. Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are obvious. Despite many people hating the primary platform, both offshoots have seen great commercial success and now boast billions of users. If you're messaging someone in 2021, there's a very high chance you're using one of those. Then there's Signal and Telegram, a pair of apps interlinked only by their focus on privacy and their shared desire to topple the duo at the top. Finally, there's iMessage and Google Messages, one of which has succeeded at being the default message service for all users on its platform, and the other of which hasn't gotten its message out on why you should use it.

With all that said, Instagram Direct, the integrated messaging client for Instagram, is rarely brought up in the discussion of the best messaging apps for Android. It's more seen as a feature of Instagram than a thing in itself, and that undersells it by quite a bit. In that way it's similar to the more mundane Twitter Direct Messaging service. In features and positioning, they are both adjacent services to full-fledged social media networks. Yet, there's a massive difference between them: to quote a Dreamworks villain, the answer is presentation.

The really obvious take is that Instagram Direct is actually built out as a decent messaging platform. It didn't start out that way, instead acting as a sort of private comments section. Once Facebook saw how many users were using it, it quickly pivoted to staple on a slew of features that would cement it as a first-class messaging experience — including ephemeral messaging, voice chats, video calling, stickers, gifs, and so on. The company's even twice tried spinning off Instagram Direct into its own messaging experience: first with an app aptly named Direct, then Threads.

Facebook Messenger iMessage Alternative

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Facebook's tried going solo with Instagram Direct twice, but leveraging Messenger could be its solution here.

Currently, Facebook is working on merging Instagram Direct with Facebook Messenger for a more integrated experience. You'll find this has already been enabled in select regions across the world, though the company has yet to specify which ones. Through trial and error, I've found the new messenger to be available in the U.S.A and part of Africa thus far. Once this is fully fleshed out, you'll keep all the advantages of Instagram with the more focused messaging experience of the Messenger app.

But what are Instagram's advantages as a messaging platform over more specialized apps? Glad you asked. When you think about how conversations begin and evolve in the offline world, they rarely spring into being apropos of nothing. Unless you're talking about the weather, the majority of conversations are based on a shared context. You could start a conversation based on seeing someone's new car, someone's new phone, or even just running into someone at the store.

With Instagram, there's a bevy of shared experiences to tie into — from image posts, to Stories, to simply sending random memes you happen upon back and forth. There's a wellspring of conversation starters that are tied into the base platform in a way that other messaging platforms don't have. This is doubly important in a pandemic year mostly defined by the lack of all these external meatspace interactions. You wind up with an app that's a watercooler when watercoolers are sadly absent.

Twitter logo on a Pixel 4 XL

Source: Joe Maring / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Joe Maring / Android Central)

Instagram also sets itself apart with a feature other social media apps wish they have, the most useful feature any social platform could ever offer you: the sheer number of active users. This is where comparisons to other platforms like Twitter or Snapchat fall apart. Where Twitter has 330 million users and Snapchat has 249 million users, Instagram has over 1 billion.

Direct? Well, that had 375 million users circa 2017. With Facebook merging it into Messenger, it's only growing to grow larger. It goes without saying that the only platform to dwarf this is Facebook itself, but its size may serve more as a function of inertia than anything at this point.

Instagram's biggest advantage? Everyone's using it.

The great thing about Instagram is that it combines all the things you'd want to see in a messaging app. All your friends are either there already or arriving from Messenger. All the features you'd want to use in a messaging app, from voice messages to silly transient photos and video calls, are present. The app's format also provides an easy conversation starter, and that's more important now than ever.

Michael Allison