Instagram recently added the one feature it needed to turn the popular mobile photo-sharing app into a do-it-all communication platform: Users can now send photo messages directly to their friends. In other words, private messaging has arrived on Instagram.
If you're not familiar with the app, which can be used equally well on iPhones, iPads and Android devices, it's a free photo-sharing service that makes just about any photo look good with built-in filters and other simple effects. Mobile photographers can simulate effects previously available only to digital artists with pricey editing tools.
Creative types embraced the new service, and it quickly spread to teens and young adults who found Facebook overrun with parents, school officials and employers.
Facebook saw the potential of Instagram, and in 2012, it bought the San Francisco-based, 13-employee company for $1 billion. Earlier this month, Facebook officials reported the number of young teens who logged into Facebook every day had declined. To those of us with kids, Facebook's news came as no surprise.
When it comes to social media, where the kids go, parents are likely to follow. With the addition of Instagram Direct, parents have a new tool to stay in touch and send reminders their kids will see.
For me, the new feature came just in time. I had back-to-back trips to New Orleans and Puerta Vallarta with just a day and a half in between to buy groceries and set up the Christmas tree.
My biggest concerns with leaving a trio of teens at home were a dead tree and a messy house when I returned just days before the holiday. One photo of me arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, posted to each of the kids' Instagram accounts, sent a clear message that I was on my way. I can only imagine the frenzy of activity that photo caused.
Instagram is the easiest way to keep friends and family up to date, as well as send friendly reminders. Further, the mundane gets new life on Instagram. An ordinary bowl of cereal placed in the slant of morning light from a window looks interesting when you add an Instagram filter. And that's the beauty of Instagram -- it lets photos speak for themselves.
Ready to get started? Download the app from the App Store for iOS devices or from Google Play for Android. You'll create an account with a username and password. Instagram will then ask if you'd like add friends from Facebook, Twitter and your contact list on your phone.
Privacy is simple -- it's either on or off. When privacy is "off," your photos are visible to everyone, and anyone can choose to follow you. When privacy is "on," you'll receive a notification when another member wants to follow your picture stream. You can also set Instagram to automatically send your photos to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and several other sites.
Taking pictures and giving them that retro Instagram look is simple. Launch the app, tap the camera icon and shoot. (Alternately, you can select a photo from your camera roll. I always take photos in the camera app, then bring them into Instagram, so I can save the original.)
A strip of 19 filter options will appear at the bottom of your screen. My go-to filter is Mayfair, which adds a central warm glow. You can also straighten photos and add a focal area with the blur tool. There's no right or wrong, just pick the effects you like the best. Tap "Next" to launch the sharing page.
Here is where you'll find the new Instagram Direct option. You'll notice two choices at the top of the screen: Followers and Direct. When you choose "Followers," your post will appear in the streams of all of the people who follow you. Select "Direct," and you'll see a listing of your followers, with those you interact with the most at the top.
Tap the circle next to a name to send your photo just to that person. You may select up to 15 recipients. All of your Instagram posts are viewable by you on your profile page, indicated by an icon on the far right bottom of your screen.
The usefulness of Instagram Direct became clear when I arrived home -- fresh tree, clean house.
Happy holidays to you and your families.
Leslie Meredith has been writing about and reviewing personal technology for the past six years. She has designed and manages several international websites. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at firstname.lastname@example.org.