Before last week, there were a couple of ways you could limit who saw your Instagram Stories content. One option: a private profile where you had to approve every follower individually. Another option: blocking select people — this worked for private and public profiles — from being able to see your Story. The most drastic alternative: just not posting anything to avoid having to share it with a wide audience.
If you’re Instagram, that last one isn’t the best choice. That’s probably at least part of the thought process behind the roll out of the “Close Friends” feature in the app’s most recent update. (The platform had been testing the feature with select users for months.)
Close Friends is what it sounds like. A list of people you’ve deemed close enough to you to see content you don’t want the rest of your followers or the world to see. (For the nitty gritty on how to use the feature, this guide is handy.) Friends who are on the list will know — look for a green star icon — they are on the list, but wont be notified when you take them off. Right now, you can only make one Close Friends list, though it’s not hard to picture a world where Instagram lets users create more. That’s mostly because the name of Instagram’s game — and more importantly the name of its parent company Facebook’s game — is to keep people engaging with each other. Even if that engagement isn’t happening as broadly as it used to.
When we talk about the evolution of Facebook, we talk a lot about context collapse. That’s the idea that online the boundaries on the group of people we’re talking to or sharing with at any given time is effectively limitless. In real-world terms, if I am sitting at a cafeteria table and I pull out my phone to show my two best friends a picture of my dog doing something stupid, I know I’m only showing the photo to those two people. I’m okay with that. But on Facebook, in the simplest sense, before I post that picture I have to decide if I’m okay with sharing it with, well, everyone. To combat this, Facebook built features similar to Close Friends to help people better direct their sharing. It started putting serious emphasis on “community,” realizing that people are more likely to share and discourse behind closed doors with like-minded people or folks with shared interests. Anything to keep people engaged.
Facebook’s reputation has become increasingly tarnished in the months since news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal — and the countless subsequent scandals — first broke. Since then, it’s seemed like leaning into Instagram, a platform that users generally have a fondness for, has been a major part of the company’s strategy to save itself. But as Instagram grows, both in size and frequency of use, it’s going to run into those same context collapse issues Facebook has faced. (We’ve previously noted that the “Facebookification” of Instagram is well underway.) Close Friends feels like a smart strategy to head that off at the pass, since sharing with a smaller audience is better, if you’re Facebook, than no sharing at all.