Technology has made it difficult in 2014 to be introverted or lazy. It’s impossible to say how Howard Hughes would have coped in a world in which it’s a social faux pas not to reply to a text within an hour of receiving it.
The smartphone, in particular, has made connecting easier than ever. In the past, you’d try a person’s landline, then mobile, and then drop them an email. Those were your options. If you found yourself in a signal dead zone your handset became redundant. Now, find a Wi-Fi hotspot and there are myriad ways of contacting someone without having to trouble your network provider.
I’m talking, of course, about messaging apps. They are big business (despite mostly being free), and there are plenty to choose from. There are emoji-only messaging apps, gif apps and the infamous Yo. The success of a messaging app lies in its ease of use and cross-platform availability but it also helps if, to paraphrase Zoolander, it’s really, really good-looking.
A key thing to remember is that different apps work best depending on who one wants to contact: friend, relative, colleague or stranger. Tone and format is important and, as the market has grown, apps have become more feature-packed. Here are 10 to make you forget the carrier pigeon ever existed.
iOS, Android, Windows, Nokia, Blackberry
People professed surprise when Facebook bought WhatsApp in a $19bn deal last February. They shouldn’t have: WhatsApp was already boasting 450 million MAUs (monthly active users), and is currently on 600 million. Its interface is clean and simple, and it allows photo, video and audio media, as well as group chat. Nifty features include the option to back up chat to iCloud and automatically save in-message media. It’s best for chatting with friends, because all of them will have it.
iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry
Continuing its apparent aim to splinter all of its web services into individual apps, Facebook made Messenger the only way of chatting via Facebook on smartphones and tablets last August. Over 500 million people downloaded it, because they basically didn’t have a choice, so it goes without saying that there’s a large user base. It has an array of stickers , if you’re into that kind of thing, and offers picture and voice messaging as well as free Wi-Fi calls. Privacy-wise though, Facebook doesn’t have the best record (remember, it now owns WhatsApp).
Free, then tiered pricing
iOS, Android, Mac desktop
Slack has become very popular among younger, hipper business teams (the tech team at the Guardian and Observer use it, we’ll say no more). Invented from the ashes of a failed game, the app has a beautiful interface and easy usability. It’s colourful and fun, and allows all sorts of content: gifs, PDFs, docs, video, to be shared in different “channels”. Think of it as the cooler, much hotter and less annoying version of Asana. Premium tiers allow deeper archive searching, analytics and guest access.
Snapchat has had some bad publicity over privacy concerns. The so-called “Snappening” was a hack exposing over 100,000 images. Often thought of as a gateway app into the world of nude selfies for teens, its real genius is in capturing the ephemera – sometimes beautiful, often hilarious – of everyday life. For me, this mostly consists of my sister sending me pictures of the cat, over which she has scrawled a comedy moustache or hat. If you’re someone who hates getting into long back-and-forths, a quick snap is a nice way to check in with a person without committing to a two hour text-marathon. Though video and picture chats disappear after 10 seconds, users can take screenshots. Now has ads.
Post-Snowden, most of us are concerned about privacy. Cryptocat is the brainchild of 23-year-old Nadim Kobeissi and allows users to send encrypted chats, including group conversations, over a simple interface. No account has to be set up. All that is needed is a conversation name, which others then access by knowing the name. If you want to send your mum stickers of pugs you won’t need Cryptocat, but for secure conversations it’s a good bet. There’s also a browser version.
iOS, Android, Windows Phone
If you have a teen, they’re probably on Kik. It’s also popular with jihadis in Syria and Iraq (no, really). Both groups are attracted by the relative privacy Kik affords – it isn’t hooked up to a phone’s contacts (although this is an option). Accounts are set up with a username and email address instead. It’s the first messenger app with its own browser, and teens love that it’s tailored towards sharing YouTube videos, web pages, memes, sketches, photos and stickers, all in-app. Blackberry sued Kik for copyright infringement of its own messenger app (fight!), so it isn’t available on its phones. Recently acquired gif app Relay.
If you’re lucky enough to work in a fairly casual office, you might know the feeling of spending half the day on GChat. As more and more workplaces use Gmail, the sight and sound of pop-ups flashing “lunch?” is a common one. The smartphone app is therefore a good tool to keep in touch with colleagues whose number you might not have. The app supports animated stickers, pictures, location settings and voice and video group calls.
Despite completely aping WhatsApp’s logo, Japanese app Line offers rather more. Even Taylor Swift has a Line account, as do many brands and celebrities. The app became popular due to its VoIP service (allowing voice calls over the internet), as well as standard messaging fare, but its main difference is its inbuilt wall feature, a bit like Facebook, as well as various games. There are other quirky features – users can add each other via QR code or by simultaneously shaking their phones.
Meow is the 21st-century version of a pen pal scheme. It allows users to find others via their location. So, if you wanted to chat to someone in every corner of the world, you could do. I used Meow to get in touch with an Israeli soldier during the Gazan crisis. It would be a great resource to help meet people when travelling. It would work better, however, if you could enter a location via search instead of just zooming in on the map, tail-on-donkey style. The down side of the app is its “random” chat function. It’s basically Chatroulette, so expect dick pics aplenty.
We’ve all fallen in love with Siri at one point or another (right?), and now there’s Ethan. Ethan is the most unusual app on this list, given that it’s a chat between you and this one kid in New York called Ethan. It’s also the most useless, given that it’s a chat between you and this one kid in New York called Ethan. Think of it as the descendant of text service AQA (any questions answered), except AQA is manned by students earning minimum wage surfing Google, and Ethan is literally this one kid in New York called Ethan. His full name is Ethan Gliechtenstein, and he’s a real person. If you want to chat to another random New Yorker, there’s also Samantha.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010