After 18 months of testing, Instagram introduces a different kind of friends list
In June 2017, Instagram announced that it had started testing a feature it then called “favorites,” which was an attempt to reinvent the friends list and encourage people to share more by letting them post to a more limited group of their followers. In response to the rise of “Finstagrams” — private accounts followed only by a person’s closest friends — the company sought to give users more tools for private sharing, with a suite of features that touched nearly every part of the app.
Nearly 18 months later, Instagram’s twist on private sharing has arrived, and it looks much different than it did in 2017. Now called “close friends,” the feature will be limited to Stories. And while it has been scaled back from its earlier incarnation, close friends could still reshape the social dynamics on Instagram.
To use the new feature, open up the Stories camera and take a photo or video. After you finish your shot, you’ll notice a new green circle with a white star in it. Tap it, and you’ll be brought to the close friends list where you can add people to your inner circle. Instagram will suggest friends to you based on the people you interact with most, or you can use a search box to finish your list. In testing, people typically added around two dozen people, says Robby Stein, product lead at Instagram.
When your list is finished, you’ll be able to share to your close friends by tapping the green circle whenever you capture a photo or video for Stories. (My product feedback: this button is tiny and would benefit significantly from being enlarged.) Once you do, your close friends will see a green ring around your story in the tray at the top of the feed. It’s a visual signal that a close friend has shared something more privately with you, and it should stand out from the standard pink-purple gradient rings.
Friends are never notified that you added them to, or removed them from, your list. Unlike a Finstagram, people can’t request to join your circle of close friends. If they’re on your list, they’ll see the green rings when you post to your close friends; if they’re not, they won’t. But you’ll still maintain “plausible deniability,” Stein says, as most people will simply assume you haven’t posted anything to your close friends group.
Friend lists aren’t a new idea — and at most social networks, they have not succeeded. As I wrote in 2017:
Years ago, Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley told me that users’ top request had been an option to make check-ins visible only to small group of friends. Foursquare built the feature, Crowley told me, but hardly anyone used it.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, has friend lists of its own. But their implementation has always been somewhat clumsy, and they seem to be relatively underused. Twitter’s lists differ in that they are public, and the company has not made improvements to them in many years.
“This is a hard nut to crack, in part because social networks are dynamic,” Stein says. People might be a close friend one day and drift away from you over time. For Instagram, that meant that adding and removing people to the list had to be as socially painless as possible. The company hopes that by stripping the list of all notifications outside the green ring, it will succeed at letting people share with smaller groups.
And I suspect close friends won’t be the only people using “close friends.” It’s easy to imagine brands creating fan clubs or VIP lists in which people can opt in to receive additional posts. Instagram hasn’t built any special tools to let publishers manage these lists, but I wonder if in time brands won’t pressure the company to let them use the close friends list for business purposes.
In the meantime, I’m glad close friends has finally arrived. As more people move from Facebook to Instagram, the app has begun to face the same problem of context collapse that its parent company’s flagship does. When you’re posting pictures simultaneously to your best friend, your ex-girlfriend, your colleagues, and a person you met once at a wedding, over time you are likely to share less and less. It’s why I find the in-app notification of how many people viewed my ephemeral Instagram Stories to be so consistently jarring. The vast majority of those people never interact with my stories, leaving me with a constant impression that I’m just being creeped on.
For Instagram to continue thriving, it has to carve out a space for actual friends to stay in touch. Close friends is a welcome step in that direction.