By Jennifer Saba and Alexei Oreskovic
NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Photo-sharing service Instagram unveiled a new feature Thursday that allows users to send images and messages privately, as the Facebook-owned company sought to bolster its appeal among younger consumers who are increasingly using mobile messaging applications.
The new Instagram Direct feature allows users to send a photo or video to a single person or up to 15 people, and to have real-time text conversations.
"Sometimes you want to be able to share, not with everyone, but just with a specific group," said Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder and chief executive during a presentation in New York. "Instagram Direct is a simple way to send photos and videos to your friends."
Instagram claims to have more than 150 million monthly users who have shared 16 billion photos on the service. Until now, the photos could only be shared publicly, allowing them to be seen by anyone using the service.
Facebook Inc, the world's No. 1 Internet social network, bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012.
The new features come as Facebook and Instagram face increasing competition from a new crop of mobile messaging services, including WhatsApp and Snapchat.
In October, Facebook said it was seeing a decline in daily use by younger teenagers in the United States, although it said overall use by teenagers was stable.
"Bottom line, this is a catch-up move for Instagram," wrote Forrester Research analyst Julie Ask in a blog post. "Apps like WeChat already allow users to share videos, photos, messages, cartoons, voice clips to individuals, groups, groups created around an event."
Instagram made the announcement Thursday in a swanky two-story event studio in midtown Manhattan, which some industry observers speculated was picked to lure the attention of ad firms on Madison Avenue. Systrom didn't address advertising or any revenue-linked potential of the new features.