Don’t look now, but Google has yet another messaging service, sort of. Today, YouTube announced that it is rolling out a new in-app direct messaging feature, much like what you’ll find in Instagram. Google’s been testing and teasing this feature for over a year now, but after taking user feedback into consideration, the company is rolling it out to all of its users around the world.
This new mobile-only feature that allows you to share a video with friends and chat about it in a private thread— all within the YouTube app. The function works like Android’s default Messages app: when you share a video with a contact (or multiple contacts as a group), you can chat about it without leaving the app, rather than having to start a new email or text message thread. Users can also respond to a video share with, what else, another video by pressing the reel icon and searching for the right comeback. The feature will be built in to YouTube’s share button, and lets you select from your phone’s contacts list. You can also get a direct link to share and add new friends to discuss the video with, if that’s your thing.
The feature was previously only available in Canada at the beginning of the year, but is now rolling out to users globally. It’s probably not going to replace the way you’ve shared videos with pals if you’re already used to doing so via apps like Facebook Messenger, but it’s a quicker option if you and your friends are often exchanging YouTube links and want a dedicated space to just talk about videos.
As noted, it’s not dissimilar to what Instagram has been doing with its own direct messaging features that arrived in December 2013. When users tap the “share” button on a video, they’ll now have the option to send it directly through the YouTube app to their contacts. The share pane shows people you’ve recently chatted with, as well as some suggestions for people to add to your list. When you tap the “add contacts” button, the app asks if you want to pull in people from your phone book or send an invite link.
Sadly, the phone book doesn’t actually show whether or not your contacts are using YouTube; it just pulls up an “add me as a contact on YouTube” message and dumps it into an SMS. It would be a lot more elegant if the app could recognize which of your friends are signed into YouTube and just start the conversation there. That’s the challenge with what YouTube is trying to do here: It’s easy enough to just use the standard Android or iOS sharing pane to drop a video into iMessage or your chat app of choice, but it’s beneficial for YouTube to keep the conversation going on its own platform.
YouTube’s suggested contacts feature makes it a little easier to get started sharing things. With those people, you can send and confirm invites within the app itself, no SMS needed. Google says those suggestions take into account which people you interact with on YouTube and other Google services, which is to say, people that you email or chat with in Hangouts will presumably show up here as well. Regardless of whether you invite someone through SMS or in the app itself, once the invite is accepted you can freely share videos back and forth.
Since its debut in tests, YouTube says it has made some slight changes to the user interface for sharing, including the way the chat interface appears to users, and it made the video stick to the top of the chat when scrolling down. It also introduced the ability to allow replying and chatting while users are watching a video, which gives the feature more of a real-time feel. However, it hasn’t gone as far as to integrate the emoji responses and co-viewing found in the company’s experimental YouTube app, called YouTube Uptime.
However, YouTube says that more improvements will be rolled out in time.
The idea behind the sharing feature’s development is to transition some of the social activity that takes place around videos – including the sharing of links and chats about the video themselves – back into YouTube instead of other messaging apps. It’s unclear if it will be successful in that regard. People’s preferred mobile messengers already have their established social graphs, and YouTube is having to build its social network of people’s friends and family from scratch.
The feature itself is easy to use – perhaps too easy. While it allows you to find friends from your phone’s Address Book, there’s currently no way to block requests from those you don’t know. You can, of course, deny those requests, but for public figures or those whose name or contact information is more freely available, this can be a problem. I had access to the feature while in testing, and found that I had a slew of incoming requests from strangers, for example – and this was before the public launch. In addition to sharing videos and chatting, YouTube users can also reply to videos they receive with other videos, or even a heart. Group sharing with up to 30 people is supported, too.