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What is a DM? Understanding Direct Messaging in Digital Communication

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A DM, or direct message, is a private communication method usually between social media users. You might hear someone say "DM me your address" or "I'll DM you with the details". What they mean is they'll use a social media platform to privately send information they don't want made public.

A social network like Facebook, X, Instagram, and TikTok will support direct messaging as an alternative to public posts and comments. You can message other social media users on the same platform one-on-one, or form private group chats. Businesses can also use DMs as a means of easily contacting customers without the interaction being made public. This can help build relationships and provide an extra layer of security when dealing with customers.

In recent years the growth of team communication software services like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Chanty means DMs have gone beyond the traditional social networks.

Platforms have their own nuances in how DMs work but the core principle remains the same: to enable private conversation. By understanding how to use DMs effectively, you can enhance how you interact and securely connect with others.

What Does DM Mean?

Direct Messages (DMs) allow you to send private information between two or more users. They are most commonly found in social networks like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and X, but are increasingly available on other communication systems too.

They enable all forms of text interaction, including casual conversations where you can respond quickly to more formal exchanges. Some platforms, like Instagram, allow voice recordings to be sent by DM too.

Terminology and Usage

DM stands for Direct Message and usually relates to sending private info on social media platforms, business communication software, or text messaging services like WhatsApp. The term DM can be used as a noun or a verb. You might say:

  • As a Noun: "I sent a DM to clarify the meeting details."

  • As a Verb: "Please DM me your contact information."

It's a casual term that can be used quite loosely in conversation.

Types of DMs

There are two types of DMs:

  1. Individual/One-on-One DMs: These enable private messaging between two users only. You might set up a chat with a friend to discuss birthday plans. Or a businesses may use direct messages on a social platform to securely offer customer support.

  2. Group DMs: These are single messages sent to multiple people at once, which creates a private group discussion. Instagram, for instance, allows up to 250 recipients in a group.

Here's an example of the types of DMs you might encounter:

Table summarizing types of DM:

Type | Platform | Description

Individual DM | X | You send a private message to a musician to connect while planning a local music festival

Individual DM | TikTok | You receive a message on private mode from a well-known drinks brand asking if you'd like to collaborate on a promotional project

Individual DM | Instagram | You receive a direct message from a confused customer who hasn't received their package from your online gift store

Group DMs | Facebook Messenger | You set up a group of five friends to discuss a birthday surprise for another friend this weekend

Group DMs | Jira | You plan to launch a new project at work and send a group DM to communicate with 12 other colleagues all in one place

DMs provide a flexible and discreet means of communication, whether you're casually chatting to friends or organising projects at work.

Technical Aspects of DMs

There are some basic technical aspects that most direct messaging platforms share. Privacy and security is top of the list, as are platform-specific features that enhance customer experiences.

Privacy and Security

DMs often contain personal and sensitive information, which means privacy is paramount to their success. Security is just as crucial and platforms typically operate encryption software alongside secure login procedures to protect user data. Here's how the main social media platforms address privacy and security concerns:

  • X: Direct messages are not encrypted unless you and the recipient are both X Premium users. Non-Premium users have transit encryption on DMs only. Users can also choose to receive direct messages from anyone, verified users, or no-one at all. Anyone you follow will always be able to message you.

  • Facebook: Parent company Meta is rolling out automatic encryption on all Facebook Messenger interactions. End-to-end encryption (E2EE) can only be read between the sender and recipient.

  • Instagram: Meta will roll out end-to-end encryption for all interactions between two Instagram accounts. However, group encryption still requires uses to "opt in".

  • TikTok: Users can set their profiles to public or private, while those aged 13 to 15 have a private account by default. You can receive messages from accounts you follow and manage message requests from unknown accounts. Parents and guardians can set additional DM restrictions. Direct message chats are protected via encryption software but end-to-end encryption isn't in operation.

  • LinkedIn: The platform collects and stores all user interactions, including DMs. Users can block accounts and report suspicious messages.

  • Discord: Messages are encrypted with E2EE and you can set privacy controls to manage who can message you. Discord is experimenting with Messaging Layer Security to deliver crypto messaging at scale.

  • WhatsApp: Messages are fully encrypted, while users can create fully-encrypted iCloud and Google Account backups. You can turn off end-to-end encrypted backups if you wish.

  • Slack: Encrypted messaging primarily intended for group work, with options to regulate who can send you direct messages.

Table summarizing privacy features:

Platform | Encryption Privacy Settings

Twitter | Transit | User-controlled

Instagram | End-to-end | Automatic (coming in 2024)

Facebook | End-to-end | Automatic (coming in 2024)

TikTok | N/A | User-controlled

LinkedIn | End-to-end | Automatic

Discord | Full | User-controlled

WhatsApp | Full | Automatic

Slack | Full | Team-controlled

DM Features Across Different Platforms

Our direct message habits have changed in recent yers and many of us now use social media direct messaging as our preferred choice of communication, instead of SMS text messaging. Social platforms therefore need to stand out from a competitive field. Here are the direct message features each of the top sites and apps use.

  • Twitter allows you to share tweets in DMs and enhance the content that can be discussed privately.

  • Instagram has 'Vanish Mode' that allows you to send disappearing messages and share content from feeds directly.

  • Facebook Messenger is often ideal for businesses as it supports chat bots for automated responses and transactions.

  • LinkedIn offers users the chance to send private messages before connecting, in order to pitch employment and network opportunities.

  • WhatsApp allows you to hide or silence messages, clear out storage from specific recipients, and format text to provide emphasis on your messages.

  • TikTok enables direct sharing video with other users.

  • Discord and Slack focus on workforce, team and community collaboration features, including file sharing and integration with other apps.

Other key features for DM platforms

  • App Integrations: Primary focus for Discord and Slack, where work productivity is important.

  • Sharing Media: Most easily accessible on visual-media social platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook.

  • Collaborative Tools: Essential for workers, teams and communities. These are found on Slack and Discord.

  • Message Automation: Ideal for top-of-the-funnel interactions between businesses and their customers, and used heavily on Facebook Messenger and LinkedIn.

Social Implications of DMs

DMs have been around for a long time but not in the form we know them today. Before social media direct messaging, most of us interacted digitally via phone calls and SMS texts. DMs are more versatile because you can tap into your platform's network to find more people to talk to.

However, this versatility can sometimes have its drawbacks. Below are two examples of how direct messages impacts us…

Networking and Building Connections

DMs are perfect for instant networking opportunities, and for researching who to stay in contact with. You don't need to source someone's phone number anymore – just find their social media profile and message them. The benefits of direct message networking include:

  • Building professional networks at low cost by connecting with industry peers, mentors, recruiters, and potential employees.

  • Sharing information and ideas instantly.

  • Engaging with people who you might otherwise not be able to speak to.

What's great about DMs is most platforms you use them on are free, or low cost. You can therefore create a social or business network from scratch, and interact with people in a less formal way than email or post.

Personal and Professional Boundaries

The influx of businesses and brands using predominantly casual social networks means we all need be aware of when a direct message crosses personal and professional boundaries. No-one wants to read a work-related DM at 11pm at night. Equally, sending unprofessional direct messages on LinkedIn could cost you a prospective client.

We all need to maintain boundaries when it comes to using DM platforms. Here's how you can do it, by splitting the personal from the professional:

  • Professional: Keep communications formal and focused on work-related topics to maintain a professional tone. Use a different social profile for business, and perhaps even a different handset or computer. Avoid sending promotional messages or work-related requests outside of office hours. Be sure to set a cut-off point in the afternoon where you don't look at professional DMs for the rest of the day.

  • Personal: You can use a more casual tone with friends or family, and reserve this sphere for non-work-related conversations. Sharing media is more acceptable and you might want to 'switch off' any personal social DMs during the working day.

Tone is everything when it comes to sending direct messages and helps forge meaningful relationships. You need to be mindful that being too casual when interacting with a recruiter could cost you a new job. Equally, it may sound a little strange if you're overly formal when chatting with friends on TikTok.

Cultural Impact Of DMs

There have been a lot of DM initiatives over the past two decades. Facebook Chat – the precursor of Messenger – launched in 2008; Instagram Direct (who remembers that?) in 2013; MySpace even had a direct messaging feature (MyspaceIM in 2009). These days you can't run a successful social media brand without direct message capability, because users genuinely use it. Even Truth Social has a direct message facility, although messages are auto-deleted after 14 days.

"DM" is now the go-to term for a private message, not only on social media but also chat platforms like WhatsApp and Slack. Naturally the term has also become commonly used across society.

DMs in Popular Culture

Online references to "DMs" increase year on year, with Instagram the most talked-about platform. Direct messages influence popular culture and are referenced in TV shows, music, movies, and books all the time.

The most influential phrase regarding direct messages is to "slide into DMs". This is to send someone a cool or casual message, often with a romantic or flirtatious tone.

Language and Slang Used In DMs

Direct messages are often, by their nature, casual. For example, if you're messaging friends on TikTok then you'll probably use a lot of slang terms. Acronyms emerge from digital messaging all the time, including:

  • LOL (Laugh Out Loud): Perhaps the first acronym to emerge from text messaging, LOL was heavily used in chat forums and direct messaging services like MSN Messenger in the 2000s. It's still used a lot today.

  • NGL (Not Gonna Lie): DM interactions may be more truthful than a public post on social media, meaning phrases like NGL are used more often.

  • DW (Don't Worry): A quick response in a crisis, DW is the ideal way of relieving tension if the person you're messaging is concerned about something.

Practical Tips for DMs

Direct messaging helps us interact with each other and share information quickly. However, the language we use can greatly impact on the tone and intent of a message.

If you're wondering how to ensure your direct message hits the right note then check out these following tips:

Set Tone Depending On Recipient

Before you engage in direct messaging, think about who your recipient is. If they're your friends then you can strike a casual tone. They might even find it strange if you were overly polite on a message. Likewise, it's crucial to establish a professional tone if you're talking to someone you don't know, a colleague at work, or maybe even elder family members. Whether you're casual or professional, ensure you are:

  • Clear: Get straight to the point to avoid misunderstandings.

  • Respectful: Always maintain politeness, even in difficult conversations.

  • Appropriate: Tailor your language to suit the context and recipient.

It's also important to manage messages carefully. If you're speaking to someone for the first time then you may need to introduce yourself. Some tone management tips include:

  • Consent: Verify the recipient is open to receiving messages from you.

  • Timeliness: Respond within a reasonable timeframe to uphold professional standards.

  • Privacy: Keep sensitive information confidential and shared only with intended recipients.

Managing and Organizing Messages

You might only receive one or two personal DMs a day, or you might be faced with hundreds of direct customer communications. It's important to manage and organise messages effectively, no matter how many or few you get. Consider the following:

  • Prioritization: Use bold or italic formatting in your messages to highlight what needs prompt attention.

  • Save For Later: Mark a DM as "unread" in order to come back to it later.

  • Organization: Categorize your messages by creating labels or folders.

  • Follow-Up: Keep track of messages that require a follow-up action, using a DM plan

For handling large volumes or unwanted messages:

  • Blocking: Know when to block disruptive individuals to maintain a positive messaging environment.

  • Archiving or Deleting: Regularly archive conversations that are complete, and delete those that are no longer relevant.

By adhering to these guidelines, you can manage your direct messages effectively, ensuring a constructive and professional communication channel.

International Perspectives on DMs

One of the big limitations with DMs is you can only send them to people on the same network. The beauty of SMS text messaging was you could talk to anyone in the world who has a phone (at a cost, of course).

Using DMs internationally is free and usually simple, but you'll hit a roadblock if you don't share the same platform as someone else.

Some direct message sites are more popular in some regions than others. Thankfully language decryption services on platforms like Facebook Messenger and in the Air BnB app make it easier to speak to people around the world.

DM Usage Around the World

DMs are used in every country and culture where phones are present. There are hundreds of app-based communication platforms out there, but only a handful of popular ones.

  • North America: Facebook Messenger is the most popular direct message service in America, with more than 139 million monthly users. More than 70% of Canadians also use Facebook Messenger. Fun add-ons like stickers, emojis, and GIFs have made Facebook Messenger the go-to platform in the region.

  • Europe: WhatsApp is by far the most popular direct messaging platform in Europe. Data shows more than 90% of Spaniards and Italians use WhatsApp, and above 80% in Ireland, Netherlands, and Germany. The app is fully encrypted and so popular that UK politicians have been accused of "running government by WhatsApp".

  • Latin America and South America: WhatsApp and the two Meta platforms command much of the Latin American and South American markets.

  • China: WeChat is China's national DM platform that goes way beyond user-to-user interaction. You can store payment details, post social messages, and even order groceries via WeChat.

  • Japan and South Korea: LINE and KakaoTalk are the two platforms of choice for DMs in Japan and South Korea. Like TikTok or Instagram, they blend social networking with private messaging.

  • Africa: WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger dominate direct message services in Africa, from Nigeria across to Kenya, and down to South Africa. Telegram is another influential service across the continent.

  • Australia: Australia: Almost 95% of Australians are online and your average Aussie spends almost two hours a day on social media. Facebook Messenger is dominant Down Under, with almost 70% of the population using the platform.

Language Barriers and DMs

Language barriers are very problematic for direct messenger platforms because they prevent millions of users from speaking to each other. The solution? Create auto-translate features, as found on WhatsApp, LinkedIn, TikTok and Facebook.

These translate features don't guarantee two people speaking different languages will understand each other. Nuances and linguistic turns of phrase are common in "text speak", as we saw in our section on slang.

Here, then, are some tips for tackling language barriers:

  • Utilize translation tools for clarity every time but check, if you can, that the translation is correct.

  • Refrain from using slang words or idiomatic phrases that foreign-language speakers may not understand.

  • If unsure, you can always ask for clarification from the other person to avoid miscommunication.

  • Keep your language as simple as possible. This way the other person can either understand you with a basic knowledge of your language, or can run what you say through their own translation feature.

Future of Direct Messaging

Direct messaging is here to stay. It is one of the easiest forms of communication and its privacy and security – across a range of platforms – means people trust DMs. However, the industry won't stay still. There are two major factors in how direct messaging evolves over time: popularity and technology.

Evolving Features, Popularity and Trends

Social platforms enjoy spells of popularity where everyone is using their direct messaging services, before suddenly they switch elsewhere. This happened when millions of users quit Myspace for Facebook, and also when TikTok began drawing users away from Instagram.

Direct messenger platforms must evolve to keep up with trends. Right now DM services need to branch beyond text messaging to voice recordings, videos, photos, and file sharing.

In the future, expect to see smart replies from AI bots, ephemeral messaging—where your messages disappear after a certain time—and more sophisticated advanced message filtering. This will help build trust and lead users to exchange private information more.

Users are likely to prioritise privacy and control of information more than ever before. This should improve up encryption services to eradicate scams.

Impact of Emerging Technologies

Direct messaging is at the forefront of technological advancements because platforms can road test their improvements to millions of users. Predictive text was once such advancement on iOS and Android devices.

Smartphone technology has boomed over the past 15 years but now developers are looking to the next big thing. Blockchain technology could significantly change how we interact with each other on decentralised systems. Quantum computing promises to improve the current levels of encryption without the typical user even knowing.

Artificial Intelligence helps platforms analyse DMs and predict what users want and need in the future. AI is now integral in how developers redesign their products to improve interaction time with users.

Emerging technologies are not just expanding what you can do in your direct messages; they're redefining the boundaries of private communication itself. It's an exciting future that will continue to evolve in ways that prioritize your needs, security, and the richness of your interactions. For greater insight into the social media platforms powering your direct messages, try CisionOne. This powerful tool gives you the opportunity to schedule, monitor, and analyze the performance of your social media content, alongside your earned media. Speak to an expert for more information.

Author Bio
Marcelo Javelly
Marcelo Javelly
 SEO and Social Listening Specialist

Marcelo is an SEO and Social listening expert with 8+ years of experience across various industries and joined Cision in 2023. Based in Copenhagen, he is our in-house specialist for all things related to social listening.