Instagram: How not to do messaging

Hi, today I'm going to remind you that spyware manufacturer Facebook's subsidiary Instagram has a messaging interface that is so bad that it might actually be an intentional prank.

There are three different places where messages can show up, and in each, any actual communication is completely swamped by ephemera:

  • Click "Heart" in the bottom row:
    • ← Noise!
      XYZ liked your post
    • ← Noise!
      XYZ started following you
    • ← Actual message!
      XYZ mentioned you in a comment
      (No read / unread indicator on any of this)

  • Click "House" at bottom left, click "Paper Airplane" at upper right:

    Here each line contains an invisibly-small avatar and how many seconds ago they were active, but no summary of the message. For that you have to click on each one. What you get is:

    • ← Noise!
      XYZ mentioned you in their story
      (1cm tall screen shot included!)
    • ← Noise!
      XYZ tagged you in their post
    • ← Noise! Also WTF!
      XYZ: No longer available - Double-tap to like
    • ← Actual message!
      XYZ sent you a message

  • "House", "Paper Airplane", "Messages, N Requests"

    For some reason, this one does show you a message summary.

    • ← Noise!
      XYZ (not a friend) mentioned you in their story
      "Do you want to let XYZ send you messages from now on?" (because a "mention" is a "message" in this bizarroland)
    • ← Actual message!
      XYZ (not a friend) sent you a message

Yeah, we really need three different places for this crap, each of which manages to drown real, explicitly-addressed messages in stalky-mentions, with no way to filter out the chaff. I'd like to see those messages because those are direct, intentional communications from my customers, and they're probably expecting a response. All the rest of it -- the mentions, the likes, the tags -- are unactionable, and are at best interesting only in the aggregate (and that's being generous).

To be clear: if you want to see all of the messages that people have typed at you, you have to go to all three places.

And then, let's say you're a business owner and you want to see what photos people are posting that are tagged at your location. Well that's easy, you just activate the following series of heiroglyphs on the dialing computer:

  • "Magnifying Glass", "Search field" (select it but don't type anything), "Recent", "[Your business]" (but the version with the "Pin" glyph, not the other one) , "Recent".

And, you have to do all of this on your phone because their web site is a completely nonfunctional afterthought. It contains the "Heart" page, but not the "Paper Airplane" or "Magnifying Glass" pages. Also you can't be logged into more than one account at once. Oh and did I mention that neither the Instagram web site nor their API allows you to upload photos or videos? YOU HAD ONE JOB.

Also: "Link in bio" is the new "Skip intro", which is to say, both should be permanently branded into the foreheads of whichever engineering manager's decision led to the rest of us ever needing to see those words.

(Something something Zawinski's Law. Something something Greenspun's Tenth Rule.)

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33 Responses:

  1. Ross Grady says:

    I finally broke down and installed Flume Pro on my Mac, for $10, because it reliably allows uploads of videos with stereo audio preserved, which the iOS client doesn’t, inexplicably.

    It might also resolve some of your issues & could be worth a look. I was surprised it existed. I also fear it’s using some unofficial API endpoints and will thus die momentarily.

    • jwz says:

      I guarantee you they are using a fragile, reverse-engineered API. As am I.

      My issues are that Facebook and Instagram are structurally, inherently hostile to the open internet, and to their users, and their user interface decisions approach the level of crimes against humanity. I don't think there's a third party plugin that can fix those things, even if you do hand them your login password.

  2. Anonymous P says:

    I have a second Instagram account which I prefer not to have logged into my phone's client, which makes it darn near impossible to use the messaging functions.

  3. Glaurung says:

    Wait, do you have to go to all three of those places to see all messages sent to you? Or is that three different ways to see the same messages? Either way it's utterly brain dead and user hostile UI.

    • jwz says:

      You have to go to all theee places to see the complete set. There is no overlap.

      • Glaurung says:

        Insane. Do none of the developers who work for Instagram use their own fucking product?

        • NT says:

          Empirically speaking, Instagram has enough devoted users that maybe you should update your prior about what a good UI looks like.

          Also, Emacs.

          • Nick Lamb says:

            My understanding was that all these products are specifically intended not to be accessible to grown-ups, since they are for you know, actual cool people. My metric for this is: I have no interest in them whatsoever, and I am definitely not one of the cool people.

            This has the effect of on the one hand meaning offering any sort of sensible API or an easy to use interface is almost diametrically opposed to the brand goals, and on the other hand making them irresistible to people who want to reach those "actual cool people" who've deliberately chosen a product that's not for stupid grown-ups.

            It's like when advertisers were trying to figure out how to reach people who attended illegal raves in the early 1990s. The kind of people who attend raves hate adverts? All the better they're exactly who want to reach.

            You have to hand it to Jamie though. Somewhere deep in his soul he yearns to be desperately unhappy, he wasn't unhappy enough as a Lisp programmer in a world of semi-colon languages; or even making Tim's half-arsed toy hypermedia system into the normal way all living humans access the Network; so he decided to become a night club owner in 21st century San Francisco.

        • jwz says:

          When AOL acquired Netscape, I learned that AOL employees -- right up to the CEO -- actually used AOL for all of their email.

          Reminder, AOL email had a single folder and no threads. In 1999, it was less capable than iMessage is today.

          Sometimes the answer to "how do they use that?" is just... "poorly."

            • tfb says:

              The links in that are interesting. Other than internal references and mail addresses there are, I think, two that still point somewhere: the top level of (whicj is kind of vacuous) and the link, which not only points somewhere but points to the right article.

              It turns out journalists know what they're doing.

          • margaret says:

            Imagine the associations that CEO has with the "You've got mail!" sound, having listened to it whenever an angry investor wanted to know how he made ~$100B of shareholder value evaporate.

  4. conoro says:

    Just as ridiculously, if you turn on devtools in the browser and pretend to be a phone browser, the website/webapp does let you upload images but not videos.

  5. phuzz says:

    Maybe shit like this is the reason they're going to a unified message backend for whatsapp, instaagram and facebook.
    Nah, just kidding, they're only doing it to make it easier to sell people to advertisers.

    • Thanks for getting there before I did.

      They're "fixing" this by unifying WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram. Although I guess they may have some problems pushing that out, since Apple told them to pound sand, wrt their app signing cert. Oops.

      I imagine the resulting app, after paying obeisance to Cupertino (and, presumably, some cash money), will have no fewer than 5 places (in each of which advertising can be sideloaded) to see all of "your" messages.

      Fuck this timeline.

  6. Nibby says:

    I like to read your perl code to inspire me with the attitude of brutal art and grim determination to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.

  7. thielges says:

    The behavior of IG and apps if that ilk is more understandable once you realize that the purpose of the tool is not to improve communication. Instead they are simply shiny objects designed to hold your attention long enough to subliminally upload the latest purchasing preferences whilst downloading your psychological quirks that can be used to tune the next upload.

    • tfb says:

      So, given that, here's a theory: messaging is an incoherent mess nt because of wholesale incompetence but because it's a maze which the laboratory rats users get to run so that useful behavoural information can be extracted from them. How you navigate the messaging system ends up being information that can be used to determine what ads you see. Messaging on Instagram is not, in fact, an incoherent mess: it's a beautifully-designed machine for extracting information from test subjects.

      No doubt they also search for posts on other forums expressing frustration with it, as that too is useful information. Occasionally someone cottons on to what's going on and that too is observed. Tomorrow this comment will never have existed and messaging on Instagram will have been subtly different for some weeks.

      • jwz says:

        Conspiracy theories are, in fact, a form of optimism: the unrequited hope that someone is in charge. That the world is run by evil masterminds so much smarter than you that something something chess analogy, and the belief, against all evidence otherwise, that more than three people can ever keep a secret. That there's an Invisible Sky Daddy, if not a literal god then at least a charming billionaire.

        Far more likely is that a bunch of dummies who don't really care about their work got rich by accident, and then they and everyone else make up post facto fables justifying their (financial, but not technical or moral) success.

        Which is a long way of saying, "Nah, I think they just suck."

        • tfb says:

          Yes, I was trying to parody some kind of Philip K Dick story (perhaps Ubik? not sure & it's a long time since I read it).

          I think Trump & Brexit are the best evidence I've ever seen that large-scale conspiracy theories are implausible. I'd personally love to believe that both things are the result of some secret conspiracy. But just watching what they do says they're not: how many people have walked from the Trump 'administration' now? He's clearly just a buffoon surrounded by other buffoons -- evil buffoons for sure, but he couldn't conspire with himself, let alone anyone else. Brexit is the same: yes we'd all like to believe that it's a conspiracy run by Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson or someone, but nearly three years in and it's clearly just a bunch of seriously dumb, overprivileged people ('all my family have a lot of names') who got lucky and are now running around thinking they're smart because they 'won'.

  8. pete says:

    The popularity of these sites are often reported by usage time.
    So if you believe the reports on usage time then the longer time users spend on the site the more popular it must be.

    However how would you increase the usage time of users? By improving the content - no make that content harder to find so that the users spends longer on the site. Making it easier to use would reduce the usage time.

  9. Sam says:

    Within Messages in Instagram, there are two clear ways to send an Image: Through the Camera icon -> Photo Library; or through the Photo Icon.
    Using ONE OF THESE sends a photo that self-destructs in 24 hours, Mission Impossible style.
    It is unclear to everyone involved which avenue will give you the self-destruct image, &/or if the image sent will self-destruct or not.
    I find it amazing how badly they bolted Snapchat into Instagram.

  10. Thanks for that! I mean, I still don't understand a use case other than saying 'yeah!' when someone talks about the thing, and I probably just haven't found the options in NoScript to not only consider a script provider untrusted but deprecate in city legislation, order a hit, DDOS, direct-mail agrestic flash, agglomerate to deprecated political regimes etc, but thanks!

  11. Jonny says:

    Crap like this is why over the past couple of years I have basically killed all social media accounts and just don't check them. My problem is with Facebook. There is functionality in there that I might occasionally use, but the NOISE is so loud that I just gave up. My big pet peeve was the utter inability to turn fucking notifications off on the Facebook website (not my phone). You literally can't turn shit off like "friend suggestions".

    It's fine. I just stopped using Facebook. I still have an account, but I just don't look at it unless someone tells me to. It work out pretty good. I can still use Facebook when I need it because someone wants to use it for planning, but that's it. I don't bother with any of the other social media sites because they are all no different; and honestly, I just don't care what other people are doing. If I want to know what my friends across the country are doing, I'll just ask them.

  12. "Dialing Computer" is the name of my new Orbital cover band.

    Wrt Instagram/WhatsApp/Facebook Messenger: "phuzz" got there before I did, so see above.

    Is "Zawinski's Law" distinct from CADT? (Genuine question.)

  13. M. Crane says:

    Because I have the increasingly rare luxury of a secure job, I was recently able to switch to a $20 dumb phone and delete my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. I want to say that doing this radically transformed my life, but what it mostly does is erase that nagging sense that you need to check your phone or social media accounts. The time you save, however, has to be spent telling everyone you know what you did, like The Ancient Social Media Mariner.

    I was inspired in part by this post.

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