Inside the secret Facebook group Instagram uses to talk to teens


[By: Julia Carpenter] [Washington Post] [Read More]

Credit: Instagram.com/lottietomlinson

Credit: Instagram.com/lottietomlinson

Olivia logged on to the Facebook group, opened her video chat and waited for other people to sign on. Minutes later, pizza arrived — ordered by Instagram in California but hand-delivered straight to Olivia’s door in D.C. and to other video chatters around the country.

This was the “virtual pizza party” Instagram employees hosted for new members of an Instagram-owned private teen Facebook group, IG Young Artists. The group, boasting more than 200-plus members, talks about everything from art to identity to social justice. And (duh) they talk about Instagram.

“They talk with us directly,” Olivia says about the Instagram employees included in the group. “And people are intimidated by teens, but when you talk to us directly, we’ll be direct with you.”

As Olivia describes it, the private Facebook group isn’t composed of teen mega-users or digital influencers or young Instagram stars. Instead, it’s filled with Instagram-loving teens with pretty typical follower counts and habits — just like herself.

As she chatted with other new group members online and ate more pizza, Olivia says she realized the power of a group of teens en masse like this — spread across the country, connected by their shared obsession with Instagram. So, yeah, she’s not surprised the Facebook-owned social media network is wise to that power and wants a slice for itself.

More and more social media companies are warring for teen attention these days, and Instagram is making some pretty aggressive moves to try to win. Instagram Stories, the app’s latest update, is a new feature allowing users to doodle, filter and add photos to a live “story” — which, yeah, seems really similar to Snapchat, the super-popular teen app, and its already-existing “Snapchat stories” feature. Like, really similar.

Instagram chief executive Kevin Systrom admitted as much when Stories launched, explaining that”[Snapchat deserves] all the credit … just like Instagram deserves all the credit for bringing filters to the forefront.”

Instagram’s Stories may have swiped the good parts of Snapchat for itself, but it didn’t stop there. While Snapchat’s users love the app’s face filters and live stories, they’ve long asked for an easier way to find other users and to share snaps. Instagram, of course, has all of this built directly into its Stories function.

“This isn’t about who invented something,” Systrom told TechCrunch. “This is about a format, and you take it to a network and put your own spin on it.”

While the latest numbers don’t appear to suggest that Snapchat is losing users to Instagram because of Stories, Instagram already has an audience almost twice as big as Snapchat’s — 300 million daily users to Snapchat’s 150 million. Olivia, of course, counts herself among them.

Part of the buzz around Instagram stories and the ubiquity of Instagram in teen culture no doubt comes from the closeness with this target audience. As brands like Snapchat fight to retain precious teen attention with new face filters and media channels, groups like IG Young Artists show that Instagram is seeking it directly — from the actual teens using its app.

A screen shot from the private Instagram Facebook group for teens responding to questions about Instagram’s newest feature, Stories.

A screen shot from the private Instagram Facebook group for teens responding to questions about Instagram’s newest feature, Stories.

Olivia, a 17-year-old D.C. high school student, joined the group last year by invitation from an Instagram representative. Olivia met some Instagram employees at a Washington media event last year, and after chatting with some members of Instagram’s teens team about her interest in visual communication and social justice, she joined the Facebook group to share her feedback with other teens — and, most importantly, with other Instagram reps.

Berna Anat works with the teens and emerging trends teams at Instagram. As she explains it, “We get feedback from our teen communities in a ton of different ways — both online and IRL. The question I’m always asking is, ‘How can we make your life on Instagram easier? More fun? More creative?’ For Stories especially, we’re keeping a close eye on what different teen communities are asking for and how they align with our product road map.”

Olivia says teens in the group talk about just that — everything from tech issues (“There was one day when Instagram had crashed. It just like wasn’t working. It was recently. Everyone was on the page like ‘What’s going on? Why is this happening?’ and they were like ‘We’re getting it fixed!’ ”) to poll questions (“If you were interested in finding more music, what platform do you use the most and for what reasons?”) to feedback on new features — including, yes, Instagram stories.

That feedback appears to go beyond what Instagram can glean simply from observing its users in action. Like many other Instagram-obsessed teens in the group, Olivia is constantly using Instagram. But that doesn’t mean that she’s actually posting to the site herself as frequently as you’d think.

“I think I use, I go on the app more than I actually post,” she says. “And I have to catch myself sometimes because I’m like, ‘Why am I not posting?’ ”

Olivia hasn’t even posted an Instagram story on her own account yet. “Right now, I’m defining a certain brand for myself, so when I start defining what I want my communication to be like with my followers or whatever, I’ll use Instagram Stories as a more public thing,” Olivia explained. But she was still watching them — and thinking about how it would change Instagram. And sharing those thoughts right back to the company.

“It was new for us as it was for everyone else, and it was just a look into what was going on in HQ and what was going on in their minds in HQ,” she says. “A lot of group members were like ‘What is this?’ so I even did a post. The first Instagram story post I saw that was a lot of ‘Here’s my Snapchat, add me on Snapchat,’ talk like ‘Yo, I hope Instagram gets sued.’”

But even as the teens in this group were complaining about the update and bemoaning the blatant copying of Snapchat story features (“Some were disappointed, like, “Really guys? I thought you were the special one,’ ” Olivia says), they’d never consider not using the app.

Sometimes, she says, the looking/scrolling/not-posting just becomes a habit, like it is for other teens across the country. That’s a habit Instagram wants to learn more about — in the group and outside of it.

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