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Why you might soon be the proud owner of an @instagram.com email address

We recently heard reports that Instagram plans to add a messaging feature that would, if real, massively beef up what’s essentially a very bare-bones social network. But now reports are surfacing that it might not be just some dingy chat icon that starts popping up on your Instagram profile – we could be looking at full-fledged @instagram.com email addresses being added to the platform.

An e-marketer received a list of @instagram.com email addresses when requesting contact information from a social data compiler. TechCrunch, which broke the story, admits that the @instagram.com addresses could be an error. But given the earlier news of a messaging service, the timing seems, at least, suspiciously coincidental.

Facebook – which owns Instagram – also gave the email thing a try (and, technically, still is). Project Titan was the codename for an experiment we all assumed would be Facebook email, although Facebook explained it as a “modern messaging system” instead. This 2010 launch introduced seamless conversations, connecting Facebook Chat, the inbox, and SMS messages into one-stream. However, it also added @facebook.com addresses for users. While these give us the ability to use Facebook as an email client (with the ability to attach items, send group messages, etc), many of us don’t, for obvious reasons.

The @facebook.com addresses are sort of just a proxy that idly sit there – I’ve personally never addressed an email or message to anyone using their @facebook.com address, and I’ve never give my Facebook “email” address out, or had anyone send anything to me via it. An @instagram.com address could function exactly the same; with the new messaging feature comes your username@instagram.com address, which shall sit there unused.

Of course, @facebook.com was a forward-thinking feature. The “email is dead” harpies will continue, and perhaps new, future users who are incredibly ingrained into Facebook will simply be weaned off a traditional email client into using @facebook for all their messaging purposes. The @instagram.com address would follow suit. There’s a strong argument that email will never completely die, that the traditional inbox will live on – but Facebook isn’t going to take any chances. If it can be obliterated by newer, sleeker, more social apps, then laying the groundwork to snag a significant piece of that future service is key.

But Facebook can’t just do it with Facebook anymore. It needs something younger, more visual, without years of privacy-mongering baggage. Something like … Instagram.

The race to corner the messaging market is heating up, and while Facebook was ahead of the game for awhile, it’s slipping at the rise of apps like WeChat, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. (WhatsApp just surpassed it as the top mobile messaging app). Instagram, with its younger, hipper, trendier platform, could be Facebook’s only hope for staying in this game. Where @facebook.com failed (or will fail … or will probably fail, if you’re an optimist), the social network may hope @instagram.com could succeed.

It’s certainly not a sure bet. While the aforementioned apps are focused around instant and mobile messaging, Instagram is focused around photo-sharing. But the lines between photo-sharing and conversations are being blurred – for more proof, just witness Snapchat’s meteoric rise. After it’s failed bid to buy Snapchat, the only thing under Facebook’s roof that could be modeled into a modern messaging system is Instagram. Does it mean Instagram could lose that intangible “thing” that’s made us love it? Maybe. Facebook’s been criticized for trying to be too many things, and this could be another symptom of that. But as competitors nip at its heels – and even overtake its user numbers – it’s a risk Facebook is willing to take.