Eyeing deeper control of our mobile devices, social networks are developing their own applications to capitalize on the mobile-messaging trend. Facebook, Google and Twitter are moved in part by greed—the notion that they can form an even deeper relationship with their users, to the exclusion of others—and fear, that someone else will do that before they can, and limit the reach of their social networks in our lives.
Conventional text messaging—the kind that carriers handle over antique protocols like SMS, charging by the message—is quickly becoming obsolete; while SMS revenues are still growing worldwide, they're expected to plateau in 2015. Meanwhile, hot young startups and tech giants alike are vying for control of your mobile messages. By the end of this year, messaging applications will have sent twice as many messages as traditional SMS services.
The messaging landscape is fragmented. Teenagers are ditching social media to chat on services like WhatsApp, Snapchat, WeChat and KakaoTalk. Apps like Kik, Line and Tango are other popular SMS replacements. On my iPhone alone, I have Snapchat, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, GroupMe and Skype.
The abundance of messaging apps could suggest that no one's come up with the perfect messaging app. Or it could just show that consumers are very willing to adopt and try new messaging services, without the winner-take-all dynamic that drove Facebook to the top of social networking. App stores make it simple and cheap for developers to distribute apps globally, and the ease of connecting with friends through our phones' easily shared address books makes it equally easy for consumers to slip from service to service.
So it makes sense that big players in social media want to fit the pieces together and capitalize on our desire for a complete mobile messaging experience. Messaging is the core of most social networks. And in order for Facebook, Twitter or Google's Google+ to be the social app to end all social apps, they have to create a messaging service good enough to make people stay on their platform.
If consumers continue their promiscuous adoption of new chat services, though, the social giants may never get the lock-in they hope for.
Are DMs Twitter’s Answer To Snapchat?
After nearly burying the feature a couple of years ago, hiding it deep within its mobile app, Twitter has put an increased emphasis on its direct-message feature as of late. On Tuesday the company unveiled redesigns of its mobile apps that amp up the messaging experience. Private, user-to-user messages are no longer an afterthought on the platform known for its public, 140-character tweets.
The company also quietly updated its Twitter.com website to make the messaging icon more noticeable. Where once a blue shadow on an icon linking to the customer's profile indicated unread messages, now a bold number on a much clearer envelope icon invites you to read the messages in your inbox.
Recently, the company has also been embracing direct messages as a tool for experimenting with new features. The @MagicRecs and @EventParrot accounts that send direct messages containing recommendations on whom to follow and breaking news became alerts features within Twitter’s mobile application. Not every tweak has been so promising: Twitter flip-flopped on a test that allowed users to receive direct messages from any follower.
While it’s still unclear what the results of numerous messaging experiments will be, a message-focused overhaul might come sooner than later; last month, AllThingsD reported that Twitter would be rolling out its own standalone messaging app to compete with the likes of Snapchat.
But that poses problems for the very nature of the product.
Unlike Facebook, following people on Twitter isn’t a demonstration of friendship. Because the majority of interactions are public tweets, encouraging direct messages on the platform could ultimately make the service more personal, which goes against the message Twitter has used to encourage new users to sign up—that Twitter is a way to follow news, brands, and celebrities, rather than stay in touch with your friends.
Facebook’s New Messenger Makes Friends With Your Phonebook
Facebook is in a different position, since it began life as an online Rolodex of friends. It already owns your data; it now wants to own your messages, too.
The company reportedly offered $3 billion to buy Snapchat, the ephemeral messaging service that receives 400 million pictures a day, an offer the company declined. Though Facebook’sown Snapchat clone, Poke, failed on the market, Facebook is clearly betting on messaging to be the social network’s next big data grab.
Facebook Messenger, a standalone app, is getting increasing emphasis; if you’ve downloaded both the Facebook app and Facebook Messenger, you're taken to Messenger when you want to send messages. You can also now use contacts' phone numbers to chat with them if you’re not friends with on Facebook. On Android, Facebook Messenger handles your SMS messages, too.
It’s the company’s latest move to own the messaging platform.
Facebook is perhaps the most personal social network on the Web. For the most part, your connections really are, well, your friends. They are given intimate details about your life: where you live, play, and work, as well as diatribes about life’s woes that run far longer than 140 characters.
But part of the reason people choose alternative messaging applications is for privacy reasons. Facebook has made no secret of the fact it collects as much data as you give it, so in order for people to glom onto Messenger, it will have to convince users that their private messages are, in fact, private.
While Facebook Messenger might be the quickest way to connect with your actual friends, the company will have to stop teens from leaving, as the younger market is, in part, what is driving the fad of mobile messaging. And even the company has admitted it’s not cool with teens anymore.
Google Hangouts, already a great alternative to instant messaging across desktop, mobile and email services, is the chat component of Google+, Google’s don’t-call-it-a-social-network social network. Google recently announced an update that allows you to share locations and animated GIF graphics in messages, and it lets Android app users send SMS texts without having to switch to another messaging application.
Google+, still in its early stages, falls in a murky space between Facebook’s network of friends and Twitter’s collection of interests. Connections on the service tend to be casual. Which is why Hangouts is often used for connecting with colleagues or people you’ve only exchanged emails with.
But by adding the ability to share locations and GIFs in messages, Google is positioning Hangouts as a social messaging experience.
Additionally, the ability to send SMS texts without leaving the Hangouts app could push Android users to favor Google’s app over standard text-messaging services.
Stick To The Basics
Snapchat is reasonably causing alarm within the headquarters of the social world’s dominant players. But instead of focusing on crushing upstart competitors, what social networks need to do is focus on what already makes them great, and apply it to their standalone messaging apps.
Connecting with friends on Facebook should be just the same on Facebook Messenger. Users who prefer to text with people whom they find interesting but may only know from their tweets will favor the Twitter messaging experience. And Android and Gmail users will likely gravitate to Hangouts, both from its ease of use and its increasing integration with other Google services.
A flawless option doesn’t exist yet, and maybe we don’t want it to. It could be that users are satisfied using a variety of messaging services—just like we are happily using the social networks that create them.
Lead image by GarryKnight on Flickr