Instagram’s take on live video arrives with an ephemeral twist

Instagram is rolling out its version of live video today, allowing users to begin a broadcast from the stories camera and interact with their followers on the service. Viewers can add comments and send unlimited hearts. But unlike most takes on live video, Instagram’s is completely ephemeral: as soon as the video ends, it disappears, and is unavailable for further viewing.

That twist makes live video on Instagram a departure from the version implemented earlier this year by its parent company, Facebook — and also by Twitter’s Periscope, both of which host broadcasts permanently. (Periscopes initially were deleted after 24 hours.) The app it most resembles is Meerkat, which helped popularize live-streaming in the United States with an approach that also made replays unavailable.

The feature looks slightly different than it did when we reported on its existence last month — and going live no longer requires you to tap a button that says “Go Insta!” Kevin Weil, Instagram’s head of product, says making the broadcasts ephemeral is designed to make people feel at ease in a medium that can often feel intimidating. “You can be comfortable because you know they’re not going to stick around,” he said of the live broadcasts.

Shilpa Sarkar, the product manager for Instagram live, said the team drew inspiration from the way live video has emerged as a way that young people spend time together. “The use case that caught our attention was people just hanging out on live, particularly young people,” she said. “After school, they jump on a livestream and hang out. That use of live [video] is particularly interesting to us.”

It also addresses a problem that tech companies have encountered in their embrace of live video: most people simply don’t find many reasons to broadcast themselves. Despite a massive marketing campaign by Facebook, broadcasting has been slow to catch on among the general public — outside its role in drawing attention to tragedies. That’s one reason Meerkat’s parent company killed the app and pivoted to a new, friends-only video chat app named Houseparty. (And incidentally, Houseparty’s multi-person video chat seems likelier to be the future of after-school hangouts than a single broadcaster interacting with her friends via text comments.)

Instagram live is designed to feel more intimate than its corporate sibling’s. When you go live in Instagram, the app will notify only a subset of your followers — the ones who engage with your photos and videos the most. And if someone harasses you, you can report them or block them from ever seeing your broadcasts.

At the same time, Instagram is also promoting broadcasts from users you don’t follow in a “top live” widget at the top of the feed. On one hand, this helps to promote live broadcasts inside the app and the accounts that are streaming. On the other hand, it cuts against the intimacy of the feed — if “top live” is filled with celebrities and media types, it contradicts the idea that live is a place for hanging out with friends.

Live video is rolling out to a test group of users today. It’s part of a bigger update that also includes a redesigned version of Instagram Direct that brings Snapchat-style direct messaging to the app. Now above your main list of direct messages you’ll see a top row of “camera conversations” that mimics the row of Instagram stories on top of your feed. In addition to broadcast stories, you can message individuals or groups now the stories camera. As on Snapchat, the app will tell you if someone takes a screenshot.

The twist here is that Instagram remembers your groups. So if you send an Instagram story to three people, Instagram saves that in the top row of the direct feed and lets you send it another message more easily. You can also swipe right to reveal a blank white canvas and send a written or picture message. It might look a lot like Snapchat today, but Weil told me the feature will differentiate itself over time.

Live video will be made available to a small group of users today. The revamped Instagram direct should be available to all users within the next day or so.

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