Instagram is to step up competition against Twitter by introducing private messages that allow users to send to groups of up to 15 people.
Kevin Systrom, the chief executive of Instagram, described the new Instagram Direct feature as "a simple way to send photos and videos to your friends". Instagram users can access this newest feature by downloading the latest version of the app from either the Apple Appstore of Android Play Store.
Users will be able to send images privately to a maximum of 15 people. Systrom said there was a limit because "it's not about spamming people that you know" but rather "sharing moments with friends."
He did however repeatedly state that this was the first version of messaging on the app and there were likely to be changes based on feedback from users. Private messages will be archived and accessible at any time.
Systrom also spoke of future plans for Instagram Direct, saying that the team were thinking of allowing users to create groups for their followers around different communities.
Although users will be able to receive direct messages from people they don't follow, these will appear in a "pending requests" section, where users can choose whether or not to accept images.
This means brands will also be able to use the app to ask their followers to submit images. The Illy Instagram account, for example, might ask its followers to send images of their morning coffee, with the best image winning a competition.
This is Instagram's first major announcement since they introduced a 15-second video feature, which also aimed to increase the amount of time users spend with the app. Systrom said that Instagram now has 150 million users and called the app "super addictive" with "more than half of our users on Instagram daily".
Facebook created a more seamless link between Instagram and its Messenger app in August, when it allowed Facebook users to send images from Instagram to their contacts.
The move to private messaging is likely to be in response to rising interest in messaging apps such as Snapchat and Whatsapp, both of which have this year been the targets of big-name acquisitions. The former reportedly turned down an $3bn buyout offer from Facebook, instead hoping a larger user base in early 2014 will give them a higher valuation – and the latter is said to have rebuffed a $1bn offer from Google.
"I think there's definitely a space for ephemerality," Systrom said today, when asked about self-deleting photos like those used by the popular Snapchat app. "Instagram, though, is focussed on capturing and sharing moments. The important thing is being able to go back to them and continue the conversation."
He added that reporting abusive or problematic images would remain the responsibility of users.
Snapchat lets users send images or video that expire after 10 seconds, and claims it has 5 million active daily users. Messages are deleted shortly after the recipient has seen the image. Whatsapp is a much more basic service that allows users to create individual and group conversations with anybody who has the app – users sent an average of 15bn messages every day in November.
A number of apps, such as InstaDM, InstaChat and InstaMessage, have been created on the back of the premise of sending private messages to Instagram contacts.
But it is likely that the introduction of messaging within the Instagram app will surprise, or annoy, many who enjoy the minimal design on the app, that currently allows users to easily scroll and like their friends' updates.