Instagram businesses and creators may be getting a Messenger-like ‘FAQ’ feature

Instagram is developing a new product, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), that will allow people to start conversations with businesses or creators’ accounts by tapping on a commonly asked question within a chat. Those who already have the feature available report they’re able to create set of up to four questions which can optionally be displayed at the beginning of a conversation with other users.

The feature could be useful for businesses that are often responding to customer inquiries about their products or services, or for creators who receive a number of inbound requests from fans or brands interested in collaborations, for example.

The product’s introduction highlights the extent that Instagram’s messaging platform now overlaps with Facebook Messenger, following the recent launch of the new Instagram messaging experience. In September, Facebook announced Instagram users would have the option to upgrade to a new inbox that now offers a number of Messenger-inspired features — like the ability to change your chat color, react with any emoji, set messages to disappear, and more. The upgrade also introduced cross-app communication between Instagram and Messenger’s platforms.

With these changes, it appears Facebook is paving a road towards making the Instagram messaging experience more on par with Messenger.

Today, the Messenger app offers a similar FAQ option for Facebook Page owners under the Automated Responses section in Messenger’s settings. Here, Page owners or admins can set up a series of frequently asked questions and their responses to those questions which can be presented at the beginning of conversations with their Page — just like this new Instagram feature offers.

The Instagram FAQ option had been spotted earlier this year while in development, but seemed to be only for Business accounts, according to the app’s code.

 

However, new reports and screenshots from one Instagram user with access to the feature indicate the FAQ will be available for creator accounts, in addition to businesses.

The feature was spotted on Monday by social media consultant Matt Navarra, who credited @thenezvm for the new discovery.

Given that @thenezvm has access to the feature now, as the above credited screenshots show, the FAQ option could either be in early testing or starting to roll out more broadly.

It’s likely the former, however, as Instagram declined to comment or provide details, when TechCrunch asked for more information.

Facebook’s Messenger Kids app redesigned to look more like Messenger

Facebook today is rolling out an updated version of its Messenger Kids app with the goal of making it easier for kids to interact with their friends and family, navigate the app, and personalize their experience with features like custom chat bubble colors. The redesign also gives the kid-friendly app a look-and-feel that’s more like Messenger itself.

The updated app does away with the larger, colorful blocks that would flash when messages arrive for a more traditional messaging app design where chats are stacked in a vertical list. The child’s unread messages, now at the top of the inbox, are in bold with a blue dot next to them to call the eye’s attention. Media and message previews have also been added, too, allowing kids to more easily see updates for their conversations.

The redesign introduces new navigation with two dedicated “Chat” and “Explore” navigation tabs at the bottom of the screen, allowing for kids to switch between their conversations and the other in-app activities the app provides, like its mini-games

And with a new swipe gesture, kids can start a call from their inbox.

Finally, the update introduces a new option to personalize conversations, including both individual and group chats, with a custom chat bubble color.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook refers to the update as a “test,” but the changes here are not small tweaks to the layout, navigation or feature set — they’re a revamp. That makes it less likely that this is just some experiment that will later be rolled back based on user feedback. Instead, by referring to it as a test, Facebook gives itself more time before committing to a global rollout.

The company says the new features will first roll out to kids using iPhones in the U.S. and Canada. The update will later expand to other devices and markets in the months ahead.

The changes arrive shortly after Messenger itself received a significant update of its own, which included a visual makeover and new features, including support for chat themes, custom reactions, selfie stickers and vanish mode, in addition to support for cross-app communication with Instagram users. Those updates could have led to the Messenger Kids makeover as well, given there’s likely some underlying messaging infrastructure that’s shared here.

The Messenger Kids app has been steadily updated in the years since its launch, most recently with a big explainer on what Facebook is doing with all that data it’s collecting.

Image Credits: Facebook

Parents should be aware this app today collects a lot of personal information, including names, profile photos, demographic details (gender and birthday), a child’s connection to parents, contacts’ information (like most frequent contacts), app usage information, device attributes and unique identifiers, data from device settings (like time zones or access to camera and photos), network information and information provided from things like bug reports or feedback/contact forms. While some of this does allow the app to properly function, there’s also concern from some parents about how this data is really being used.

While the app does offer a suite of parental controls that make it easier for parents to monitor and restrict how and when their children chat online, Messenger Kids’ privacy policy still leaves itself a lot of wiggle room about how the data may be used to “evaluate, troubleshoot, improve, create, and develop our products” and be shared with other Facebook Companies. Parents should carefully weigh the risks of allowing their child to use a Facebook product with the conveniences of being able to use an app with a robust set of parental controls.

Facebook’s Snapchat-like ‘Vanish Mode’ feature arrives on Messenger and Instagram

Facebook today announced its new Snapchat-like feature for disappearing messaging, Vanish Mode, is arriving on Messenger and Instagram. The feature, meant for more casual conversations, allows users to set chats to automatically delete after the message is seen and the chat is closed.

In Vanish Mode, Messenger and Instagram users can send text chats, emoji, pictures, GIFs, voice messages and stickers, which will disappear after they’ve been seen and users leave the chat, Facebook explains.

Image Credits: Facebook

However, unlike on Snapchat, Vanish Mode is not a default setting. Instead, users are meant to enable it from within an existing chat by swiping up on their mobile device’s screen while in the chat.

Upon first launch, a screen will appear explaining how Vanish Mode works. It also notes that users will be alerted if someone takes a screenshot of the conversation — as Snapchat does.

For safety purposes, Facebook supports blocking and reporting in Vanish Mode. If a user in the conversation reports a chat, the disappearing messages will be included for up to 1 hour after they disappear, the company explains. This allows Facebook to review the reported conversation and take action, if need be.

Image Credits: Facebook

Vanish Mode is also an opt-in experience — meaning you can can choose whether to enter a Vanish Mode chat. And it only works with people you’re connected to, Facebook says.

Once in Vanish Mode, the screen goes dark to signal the change. To exit Vanish Mode, you tap on the “Turn Off Vanish Mode” button at the top of the screen.

Facebook’s plans for Vanish Mode were announced earlier as part of its overhaul of the Instagram messaging experience in September. This update had included the ability for Instagram and Messenger users to communicate across apps, along with other “fun” features.

As a part of that update, Instagram received many Messenger-inspired additions — like the ability to change the chat color or react with any emoji, for example. But though announced, the Vanish Mode feature was then said to be coming “soon.”

Image Credits: Facebook

To be clear, Vanish Mode is not designed to cater to those looking to secure an entire conversation. Though the feature is end-to-end encrypted, Facebook already offers a fully end-to-end encrypted conversations feature (Secret Conversations). Instead, Vanish Mode’s main focus is to chip away at yet another advantage held by rival Snapchat.

That’s par for the course for Facebook these days. The company already copied the Stories format popularlized by Snapchat, and now that product alone on each of its platforms is used by more people (500+ million than all of Snapchat (249 million).

To get Vanish Mode, and other recent updates to the Instagram messaging experience, users have to opt-in to the upgrade. Essentially, these new features are being used as lures to get Instagram users to agree to the upgrade.

The upgrade then locks them further inside the Facebook universe as they then also receive the ability to communicate cross-platform with users on Facebook. Eventually, WhatsApp may become a part of this cross-platform communication strategy, as well.

Once upgraded, people can use just one messaging app to reach friends and family on two of the largest social networks in the world. And with additions like Vanish Mode, they won’t miss out on things found on competitors’ apps. Meanwhile, with Reels on Instagram, Facebook aims to retain TikTok users, too.

Facebook says Vanish Mode is launching starting today on Messenger in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Peru and Bangladesh, and on Instagram (soon) in Canada, Argentina, Chile, Peru and a few other countries. It will soon roll out to other countries across both platforms, the company says.

 

Instagram’s Threads app now lets you message everyone, like its Direct app once did

Last year, Instagram announced it was ending support for its standalone mobile messaging app known as Direct, which had allowed users to quickly create and share messages with friends. Shortly thereafter, the company launched Threads, a new messaging app focused on status updates and communication with only those you identified in Instagram as your “Close Friends.” Now, these two messaging concepts are merging. With the latest update to Threads, Instagram is again offering the full inbox experience, it says.

The changes were noted in the latest app update and were soon spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra and noted reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong — who both keep a close eye on changes to popular social apps.

In the latest update, Threads will now present a two-tabbed inbox.

In the “Close Friends” section, you can continue to message with your most frequent contacts, as before. The new second tab, “Everyone Else” allows access to your larger Instagram inbox. The app will continue to prioritize the “Close Friends” tab, and your status will continue to only be visible to Close Friends as well.

Instagram also tells us that, by default, Threads users will continue to only receive notifications for their Close Friends. But this can now be adjusted in the app’s Settings if you want to receive notifications for all messages instead.

What’s interesting is that these changes are rolling out so closely following a major update to Instagram’s messaging platform.

Only last week, Facebook introduced cross-app communication between Messenger and Instagram, alongside other features.

That update allows Instagram users to opt to upgrade to a new messaging experience that includes the ability to change chat colors, react with any emoji, watch videos together, set messages to disappear and more. These “fun” features serve as a way to entice users to agree to the update, which then locks users further inside the Facebook universe as it opens up cross-platform messaging. That means upgraded users can use Instagram to message their Facebook friends.

With the changes to Threads, one has to wonder if Facebook is now envisioning the standalone chat app as another potential entry point into its larger messaging platform.

Instagram says that’s not the case today.

“Cross-app communication is an opt-in update for people using Instagram, and will not be enabled for Threads,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch.

That doesn’t mean Threads won’t be updated to later offer some of the other changes that Instagram users can now take advantage of, if they choose to upgrade their messaging experience.

In fact, we understand that Instagram is considering bringing some of those new features over to Threads in the future. There’s no exact timeframe for this project at this point, though.

Presumably, this would mean connecting the Threads app on the backend to the newly built messaging infrastructure. If that’s true, even if Facebook chose to keep cross-app communication an Instagram-only (and Messenger-only) experience, it would still be tying in another core app, Threads, to the new messaging platform. And this, in turn, could make it harder to unspool the apps in the case that Facebook is forced to break up its business, if regulators were to declare it a monopoly.

It’s not clear, however, if Threads has yet been connected to that infrastructure or if it will further down the road. But it’s worth keeping an eye on.

The Threads update is live now.

 

Messenger VP details use of forwarding limits and fact-checking to fight misinformation

A few weeks ago, Facebook Messenger introduced new rules around message forwarding to limit the spread of misinformation on its platform. Speaking today at TechCrunch Disrupt 2020, Facebook Messenger VP Stan Chudnovsky offered more detail about how Facebook views its role in fighting the spread of misinformation and other harmful content across its messaging platform, while still balancing the idea that Messenger is meant to be a platform for private and, at times, encrypted conversations (aka “secret” messages).

Chudnovsky explained that Facebook’s goal is to make Messenger feel like the digital equivalent of having a private conversation between friends and family in the living room. But the company also acknowledged that with the rise of digital tools and new mediums, there are things that Facebook needs to be cognizant of, when it comes to how those tools can be abused.

“Messenger is obviously a private means of communicating. And we want to make sure it is private. This is a very important priority for us,” Chudnovsky started. But when users began forwarding messages at scale, Messenger is then no longer about having a private conversation. It becomes a tool for one-to-many information sharing, he explained.

“This is…more like a public broadcast,” he said.

Facebook had first announced last year that it was “adding friction” to message forwarding for Messenger users in Sri Lanka, so people could only share a particular message a certain number of times. The limit was set to five people or groups at the time. Those same rules have now expanded across the Messenger platform, with the same forwarding limit of five people or groups.

The new limits, the exec continued, aim to stop this spamming behavior. “Certain pieces of information cannot be forwarded too many times…that’s something that we think is really going to help in stopping the spread of the misinformation, especially in the times that we are in right now,” he added.

Chudnovsky also noted that because of how Messenger is connected to Facebook, when false information gets flagged by Facebook’s partnered fact checkers, that same warning about the information’s inaccuracy can then be inserted into any Messenger conversations, to warn users who may have been sent the misleading or otherwise harmful content.

“That doesn’t violate privacy at all because it all comes through the same big pipelines,” he pointed out.’

Facebook’s website that details how its fact-checking program works doesn’t yet include a mention of Messenger, only Facebook and Instagram.

One thing Facebook won’t consider is putting an end to link-sharing entirely, Chudnovsky said.

“I think those things are core to the internet,” Chudnovsky said of link-sharing and forwarding. “[Completely banning] the ability for people to exchange information on the internet defeats the purpose of [the] internet itself,” he said.

Facebook launches drop-in video chat Rooms to rival Houseparty

Facebook is co-opting some of the top video chat innovations like Zoom’s gallery view for large groups and Houseparty’s spontaneous hangouts for a new feature called Rooms. It could usher in a new era of unplanned togetherness via video.

Launching today on mobile and desktop in English speaking countries, you can start a video chat Room that friends can discover via a new section above the News Feed or notifications Facebook will automatically send to your closest pals. You can also just invite specific friends, or share a link anyone can use to join your Room.

For now, up to 8 people can join, but that limit will rise to 50 within weeks, making it a more legitimate alternative to Zoom for big happy hours and such. And more importantly, users will soon be able to create and discover Rooms through Instagram, WhatsApp, and Portal, plus join them from the web without an account, making this Facebook’s first truly interoperable product.

“People just want to spend more time together” Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky tells me. One-on-one and group video calling was already growing, but “Now in the time of COVID, the whole thing is exploding. We already had a plan to do a bunch of stuff here [so people could] hang out on video any time they want, but we accelerated our plans.” There’s no plans for ads or other direct monetization of Rooms, but the feature could keep Facebook’s products central to people’s lives.

Choosing to create a separate and extremely prominent space for discovering Room above the News Feed reveals how seriously Facebook is taking this product. It could have marooned Rooms in a standalone app or made them just another News Feed post that’s timeliness would get lost in the algorithm. Instead, it was willing to push the feed almost entirely off the start screen beneath the composer, Rooms, and Stories. Clearly Facebook sees sharing, ephemeral content, and synchronous connection as more key to its future than static status updates.

Facebook Goes All-In On Video

The launch of Rooms comes alongside a slew other video-related updates designed to shore up Facebook’s deficiency in many-to-many communication. Messenger and WhatsApp now see 700 million people using audio and video calls each day, while Facebook and Instagram Live videos now reach 800 million people per day. Facebook already owns the many-to-one feeds and has emerged as a leader in one-to-many livestreaming, but “the middle piece needed way more investment” Chudnovsky says.

Here’s a rundown of the other announcements and what they mean:

  • Virtual And 360 Backgrounds with mood lighting – Facebook will soon launch the ability to choose a virtual background to cover up what’s behind you on a video call, including 360 backgrounds that look different as you move around, plus mood lighting to make you look better on camera

  • WhatsApp expands group calls from four to eight max participants – Encompassing larger families and friend groups makes WhatsApp a more viable competitor to Zoom

  • Facebook Live With returns – It’s tough to be the center of attention for long periods, so being able to bring a guest on screen during Live calls keeps them interesting and low pressure
  • Donate button on live videos – This makes it much easier for musicians, activists, and normal people to raise money for causes during the coronavirus crisis
  • Live via audio only – With more musicians bringing their tours to Facebook Live, now you can listen while still going about your day when you can’t watch too or want to conserve data, and you can use a toll-free number to dial in to some Pages’ videos
  • Instagram Live on web – You can now watch Live videos and comment from desktop so you can multi-task during longer streams

  • Live on IGTV – Long live videos won’t have to disappear since they can now be saved to IGTV, encouraging higher quality Instagram Lives meant to last
  • Portal Live – You’ll now be able to go Live to Pages and Groups from Portal devices so you can move around while streaming

  • Facebook Dating Video Chat – Rather than going on a date where you have no chemistry, you’ll be able to video chat with matches on Facebook Dating to get a feel for someone first.

How To Use Facebook Rooms

Facebook strived to make Rooms launchable and discoverable across all its apps in hopes of blitzing into the space. You can launch a Room from the News Feed composer, Groups, Events, the Messenger inbox, and soon Instagram Direct’s video chat button, WhatsApp, and Portal. You’ll be able to choose a start time, add a description, and choose who can join in three ways.

You can restrict your Room just to people you invite, such as for a family catch-up. You can make it open to all your friends, who’ll be able to see it in the new Rooms discovery tray above the News Feed or inbox and eventually similar surfaces in the other apps. In this case, Facebook may notify some close friends to make sure they’ll see it. Or you can share a link to your Room wherever you want, effectively making it public.

Facebook apparently watched the PR disaster that emerged from Zoombombing, and purposefully built security into Rooms. The host can lock the room to block people from joining via URL, and if they boot someone from a Room, it automatically locks until they unlock it. That ensures that if trolls find your link, they can’t just keep joining from the web.

Naturally, Chudnovsky tried to downplay the influence of Zoom and Houseparty on Rooms. “We’re glad there are many other apps people can use when they want to see each other and stay close to each other. I don’t think we necessarily learned anything that actually became part of this product” he insisted. It’s also convenient that Rooms is essentially a non-exclusive video version of Clubhouse, the voice chat app that’s the talk of Silicon Valley right now

The Uncopyable Copier

Facebook has been quietly working on Rooms since at least 2017, exploring how to make group chats discoverable. It tried a standalone app for group video chat discovery called Bonfire that year. In fact, Facebook launched a standalone app called Rooms back in 2014 for anonymous forums.

The genius of this launch is how it combines three of Facebook’s biggest strengths to build a product that copies others but is hard to copy itself.

  • The ubiquity of its messaging apps and web compatibility make Rooms highly accessible, without the friction of having to download a new app.
  • The frequency of visits to its feeds and inboxes where Rooms can be found by the family of apps’ 2.5 billion users plus Facebook’s willingness to bet big by sticking Rooms atop our screen like it did with Stories could unlock a new era of spontaneous, serendipitous socializing.
  • The social graph we’ve developed with great breadth across Facebook’s apps plus the depth of its understanding about who we care about most allow it to reach enough concurrent users to make Rooms fun by intelligently ranking which we see and who gets notifications to join rather than spamming your whole phone book.

No other app has all of these qualities. Zoom doesn’t know who you care about. Houseparty is growing but is far from ubiquitous. Messaging competitors don’t have the same discovery surfaces.

Facebook knows the real engagement on mobile comes from messaging. It just needed a way to make us message more than our one-on-one threads and asynchronous group chats demanded. Rooms makes video calls something you can passively discover and join rather having to actively initiate or be explicitly pulled into by a friend. That could significantly increase how often and long we use Facebook without the deleterious impacts of zombie-like asocial feed scrolling.

For more of this author Josh Constine’s thoughts on tech, join his newsletter Moving Product

Facebook Messenger preps Auto Status location type sharing

Facebook Messenger could soon automatically tell your closest friends you’re at the gym, driving or in Tokyo. Messenger has been spotted prototyping a ported version of the Instagram close friends-only Threads app’s Auto Status option that launched in October.

The unreleased Messenger feature would use your location, accelerometer and battery life to determine what you’re up to and share it with a specific subset of your friends. But instead of sharing your exact coordinates, it overlays an emoji on your Messenger profile pic to indicate that you’re at the movies, biking, at the airport or charging your phone.

It’s unclear if or when Messenger might launch Auto Status. But if released, the feature could become Facebook’s version of the AOL Away Message, allowing people to stay in closer touch without the creepiness of exact location sharing. It might also help people coordinate online or offline meetups by revealing what friends are up to. Auto Status creates an ice breaker, so if it says a close friend is “at a cafe,” or “chilling,” you could ask to hang out.

Back in 2016, I wrote about how exact location sharing had failed to become mainstream because knowing where someone is doesn’t tell you their intention. What matters is whether they’re free to interact with you, which none of the social networks offered.

A few products, like Down To Lunch and Free, came and went in the meantime. Snapchat’s Snap Map and its acquisition of Zenly both doubled down on precise location sharing, yet still we’re often stuck home wondering if anyone we care about is similarly bored and might want to hang out.

Facebook has been experimenting in this space since at least early 2018, when its manual Emoji Status was spotted. That allowed you to append an emoji of your choosing to your Messenger profile pic. Then in October, Facebook introduced Auto Status, but only in the Instagram side-app Threads.

Some users were initially creeped out by the idea of Facebook relaying battery status. But Instagram director of Product Management Robby Stein explained to me that because you might not respond to a message if your phone goes dead or is left on the charger, it’s useful info to relay to friends who might be wondering what you’re doing.

Then earlier this month, reverse engineering master and constant TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong revealed a new, unreleased version of Emoji Status hidden in Messenger’s Android code. Then today, Wong showed off how she similarly spotted Facebook trying to port Auto Status to Messenger. That would bring the feature to more than one billion monthly users compared to the relatively small base for Threads.

With Auto Status, you can “Let specific friends see what you’re up to as you go about your day. Share location info, weather, and more, even when you’re not in the app.” Auto Status is only visible to a special list of friends you can change at any time, similar to Instagram Close Friends. And the feature shares “no addresses or place names. Just types of locations, like “at a cafe.” Movement (driving, biking, walking), venue (at the movies, airport), cities (in Tokyo) and battery status (low battery, charging) are some of categories of what Auto Status shares.

A Facebook Messenger communications representative confirmed to TechCrunch that the Auto Status feature was being prototyped by Messenger, noting that “We’re always exploring new features to improve your Messenger experience. This feature is still in early development and not externally testing.” The company also tweeted the statement.

One of the biggest unsolved problems in social networking and messaging remains knowing whether friends are free to chat or hang out without having to ask them directly. Reaching out at the wrong time only to be ignored or rejected can feel awkward or intimidating, and can discourage connection later. But if you have a vague idea of what a close friend is up to, you can more deftly plan when to message them, and be more likely to get to spend time together in person or just online.

That could be a cure to the loneliness that endless feed scrolling by ourselves can leave us feeling.

Facebook launches Community Hub for Messenger users to fight coronavirus rumors

Facebook today unveiled Coronavirus Community Hub on Messenger that offers tips, authoritative information and other resources to help people stay connected and informed about the coronavirus outbreak, weeks after launching a similar information hub on WhatsApp, its other messaging service.

The launch of the coronavirus hub on Messenger, used by more than a billion people, comes at a time when users are engaging with the instant messaging and voice calling more often than they have ever before, the company said.

“Around the world, we’ve seen significant increases in people using Messenger for group calls to stay in touch with their loved ones. Globally, 70% more people are participating in group video calls and time spent on group video calls has doubled,” wrote Stan Chudnovsky, VP of Messenger.

The community hub for Messenger users is the latest effort from the social conglomerate, used by more than 2.7 billion users, to help fight the global pandemic.

In recent weeks, Facebook has stepped up to help governments and agencies with free developer tools for Messenger to combat COVID-19, and introduced an info centre atop of the news feed to prominently showcase reliable information.

Additionally, the company is also working with nonprofit organizations such as the WHO to build helplines, and has committed to donate millions of dollars. The World Health Organization’s helpline on WhatsApp has already reached more than 10 million users, days after its launch.

But the vast reach of Facebook has also attracted scammers. “Unfortunately, scammers may try to take advantage of people’s vulnerability and generosity during this time. We take your safety seriously and continue to take aggressive steps to remove fake accounts and catch scammers before they reach you,” wrote Chudnovsky.

The hub on Messenger will additionally also recommend activities such as scheduling a virtual play date for parents to engage with their kids’ friends, Chudnovsky wrote.

“For local community leaders, this could mean organizing group video chats or text groups to support each other when we can’t physically be together,” he added.

Instagram launches Co-Watching of posts during video chat

Now you can scroll Instagram together with friends, turning a typically isolating, passive experience into something more social and active. Today Instagram launched Co-Watching, which lets friends on a video chat or group video chat browse through feed posts one user has Liked or Saved, or that Instagram recommends.

Co-Watching could let people ooh, ahh, joke, and talk about Instagram’s content instead of just consuming it solo and maybe posting it to a chat thread so friends can do the same. That could lead to long usage sessions, incentivize users to collect a great depository of Saved posts to share, and spur more video calls that drag people into the app. TechCrunch first reported Instagram was testing Co-Watching a year ago, so we’ll see if it managed to work out the technical and privacy questions of operating the feature.

The launch comes alongside other COVID-19 responses from Instagram that include:

-Showing a shared Instagram Story featuring all the posts from you network that include the “Stay Home” sticker

-Adding Story stickers that remind people to wash their hands or keep their distance from others

-Adding coronavirus educational info to the top of results for related searches

-Removing unofficial COVID-19 accounts from recommendations, as well as virus related content from Explore if it doesn’t come from a credible health organization

-Expanding the donation sticker to more countries so people can search for and ask friends for contributions to relevant non-profits

These updates build on Instagram’s efforts from two weeks ago which included putting COVID-19 prevention tips atop the feed, listing official health organizations atop search results, and demoting the reach of coronavirus-related content rated false by fact checkers.

But Co-Watching will remain a powerful feature long after the quarantines and social distancing end. The ability to co-view content while browsing social networks has already made screensharing app Squad popular. When Squad launched in January 2019, I suggested that “With Facebook and Snap already sniffing around Squad, it’s quite possible they’ll try to copy it.” Facebook tested a Watch Together feature for viewing Facebook Watch videos inside Messenger back in April. And now here we are with Instagram.

The question is whether Squad’s first-mover advantage and option to screenshare from any app will let it hold its own, or if Instagram Co-Watching will just popularize the concept and send users searching for more flexible options like Squad. “Everyone knows that the content flooding our feeds is a filtered version of reality” Squad CEO Esther Crawford told me. “The real and interesting stuff goes down in DMs because people are more authentic when they’re 1:1 or in small group conversations.”

Squad, which lets you screenshare anything, including websites and your camera roll, won’t be fully steamrolled. When asked if Instagram would build a full-fledged screensharing feature, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri says they’re “Not currently working on it . . . screensharing is not at the top of the list for us at Instagram.”

With Co-Watching Instagram users can spill the tea and gossip about posts live and unfiltered over video chat. When people launch a video chat from the Direct inbox or a chat thread, they’ll see a “Posts” button that launches Co-Watching. They’ll be able to pick from their Liked, Saved, or Explore feeds and then reveal it to the video chat, with everyone’s windows lined up beneath the post.

Up to six people can Co-Watch at once on Instagram, consuming feed photos and videos but not IGTV posts. You can share public posts, or private ones that everyone in the chat are allowed to see. If one participant is blocked from viewing a post, it’s inelligible for Co-Watching.

Co-Watching could finally provide an answer to Instagram’s Time Well Spent problem. Research shows how the real danger in social network overuse is passive content consumption like endless solo feed scrolling. It can inspire envy, poor self-esteem, and leave users deflated, especially if the highlights of everyone else’s lives look more interesting than their own day-to-day reality. But active sharing, commenting, and messaging can have a positive effect on well-being, making people feel like they have a stronger support network.

With Co-Watching, Instagram has found a way to turn the one-player experience into a multi-player game. Especially now with everyone stuck at home and unable to crowd around one person’s phone to gab about what they see, there’s a great need for this new feature. One concern is that it could be used for bullying, with people all making fun of someone’s posts.

But in general, the idea of sifting through cute animal photos, dance tutorials, or epic art could take the focus off of the individuals in a video chat. Not having one’s face as the center of attention could make video chat less performative and exhausting. Instead, Co-Watching could let us do apart what we love to do together: just hang out.

The best video chat apps to turn social distancing into distant socializing

The vicissitudes of social distancing have taken many people by surprise, making video calls a new necessity for distant socializing. But which of the two-dozen apps out there should you and your (perhaps not as tech-savvy) friends and family use? Here are our recommendations, whether it’s for a coffee meeting, a family get-together or a late-night gaming hangout.

This list is for individuals looking for a free solution to easily connect with others, not for small businesses or enterprises. The focus here is on ease of use and features that make it attractive to ordinary people. Every app is free and cross-platform, meaning iOS and Android at least, with many supporting Macs and Windows machines as well.

For big groups

Skype (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, web)

Pros: Many simultaneous callers

Cons: Tries too hard to do other things

Skype has been around for a long time, and while its desktop app is pretty weak, the mobile version is solid and it supports big groups with no real time limit (four hours per call, 100 hours per month), for free. As long as you focus on just the video calls, it’s great, but Skype’s emoji reactions, status updates and other cruft are best avoided.


Zoom (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

Pros: Many simultaneous callers, strong admin controls

Cons: Sketchy background data policies, 40-minute limit

Zoom is one of the most popular business video conference apps out there due to its reliability, solid web integration and other features. It’s not really made for personal calls — there are way more bells and whistles than you need — but its free plan works just fine for them. Unfortunately, there’s a 40-minute limit for group calls, which you’ll hit faster than you think, and everyone will have to hang up and start again. Zoom has also been criticized for its considerable behind-the-scenes data collection. If you really want to just chill with your friends, there are better options.

For friends and family

FB Messenger (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

Pros: Easy to use, many people already on it, some handy group features

Cons: Facebook account required

Messenger is a popular app for good reason — it works well for pretty much every kind of digital communication you might want to do with your friends. It supports up to eight people in free video calls with no duration limit, and when you are doing a two-person call it switches to a peer-to-peer structure, skipping servers and potentially avoiding congestion. Of course, it’s also a Facebook product, meaning you’ll need an account there — not something everyone is into. But Messenger use is considerably better protected from Facebook snooping than posts and images on the main site.


WhatsApp Messenger (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, web)

Pros: Secure, popular

Cons: Only four people per video call

Think of WhatsApp as FB Messenger’s nerdier, less-good-looking sibling. With a focus on privacy, WhatsApp is popular around the world despite being super ugly, and while video calls aren’t its main feature, they are possible if you don’t mind a four-person limit. To activate it, start a group chat and then hit the call button at the top right and select the participants, then hit the camera.


Google Duo or Hangouts (iOS, Android, web)

Pros: Simple interface, uses existing Google account

Cons: Confusing platform issues, Duo may not be long for this world

Duo is one of Google’s later messaging products, started as a complement to Allo and meant to be sort of the consumer version of Hangouts, which is being split into Chat and Meet, but still exists on its own. Confused? So is Google. But the apps work pretty well for now, plugging into your existing Google contacts and accounts and letting you do straightforward, unlimited video calls. If your friends don’t want to sign up for a new account anywhere, this is a good option — just don’t get attached, as unpopular Google products don’t tend to live for long.


Marco Polo (iOS, Android)

Pros: Video messaging is a fun alternative to live chats

Cons: No live chat option

This isn’t a video chat app per se, but the fact is not everyone really wants to do a full-on live face-to-face video all the time. Marco Polo is like a streamlined Snapchat, sending short videos to friends or groups with the option to add doodles, filters and so on. If you and your friends are finding it hard to set aside half an hour to talk live, this can be a good alternative.


Honorable mentions: FaceTime, Instagram

FaceTime is great, but it’s not cross-platform, considerably limiting its usefulness. But if your friends do happen to have Apple products, it’s a great, simple option. Instagram has video calling built into direct messages, which is nice for quick calls with people you aren’t sure you want to bring into a smaller circle of connectivity.

For having fun together

Houseparty (iOS, Android, web)

Pros: Simple drop-in, drop-out group chat, built-in games

Cons: Basically a trojan horse for Heads Up

Houseparty established its brand as the app teens were using to chat with groups of friends without leaving the house. Pundits disapproved, but as usual, the kids get the last laugh. Houseparty is nice for a group of close friends, alerting you when someone’s available and letting people easily join in the chat with minimal fuss. The built in games are also fun, but you’ll have to pony up for Heads Up decks. The Pictionary clone is fun, but desperately needs more words.


Discord (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Linux, web)

Pros: Great for voice chat while gaming or simple occasional video chat

Cons: Occasionally confusing interface, not video-focused

Discord is the de facto champion for gaming-related communications, taking the place of many in-game chat interfaces and even schooling industry heavyweights like Steam. While it’s mainly focused on audio and does that well, video is an option too. Less savvy users may also find its interface confusing, with multiple tabs, groups and channels.


Honorable mention: Bunch, Squad

A newer app, Bunch, is focused on group games while in video chat. This can be hit or miss and you can expect in-app purchases, and startups like this don’t always live forever. But Bunch is probably getting a lot of engagement right now and can use that to extend its credit long enough to power through the summer at least. I can’t think of a better opportunity to give it a shot.

Squad is focused on sharing what you’re doing on your phone while chatting — so you can Tinder together, watch videos, etc. Like Bunch, it’s still new, so you’ll have to get your friends to sign up, but it’s a nice way to share what you’re scrolling (or swiping) through.