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instagram-logoIf Instagram users had a photo they only wanted to share with a select few, the Facebook-owned photo sharing service wasn’t the place to do it.

But now, the company has announced Instagram Direct: a way for users to share a snapshot with only a select few anointed friends. With the new system, users can share a photo or video with up to 15 people on the service, without making it public to their whole feed.

Once an image gets sent, a comment thread shows up below for recipients to discuss an image. Instagram Direct also comes with built in read receipt capabilities: image recipients are listed by their profile picture below the image, and that picture lights up when a friend looks at the image. That way, it’s possible to know that even though your friends from college all looked at that picture of your cat, none of them had anything to say about it.

tumblr_inline_mxnh6tXp9m1qm4rc3Currently, only people that users follow will be able to send them images directly, though if someone a user doesn’t follow sends them something through Instagram Direct, it’s possible for the recipient to allow that user to send more messages in the future.

The service has a number of similarities to Snapchat, the popular ephemeral messaging service that some pundits believe poses a major threat to Facebook’s dominance of the social media market. Both require a user to post an image in order to start chatting, and both provide a way to make the image disappear.

While Snapchat requires users to set a timer after which a message self-destructs, Instagram allows people to keep a message for as long as they want, though the sender can delete a message at any time and make it disappear from Instagram (and its recipients’ phones) completely.

This is the second time Facebook has decided to use Instagram as its proxy in a fight to keep control of the social media market. The app’s video feature, annouced earlier this year, was Facebook’s answer to Vine, the video-sharing service that was bought by Twitter.

Still, Facebook doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to competing with Snapchat. Poke, a Snapchat clone the company released last year, hasn’t caught on at all, and remains an iOS-only app.

Twitter, for its part, recently added inline images for direct messages to its iOS app, which, in hindsight, seems to be a move to try and position itself as a competitor to Instagram Direct.

Instagram Direct is available with an update to Instagram 5.0 on the iOS App Store and Google Play Store. The Instagram app for Windows Phone doesn’t support Instagram direct just yet.

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