Saturday 22 October 2016

Digital DIY Part Three: How to use free social messaging services

Published 28/08/2015 | 02:30

Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Social messaging: a late adopters' guide Do you know your Snapchat from your Skype? Social messaging services are everywhere now and it's not just kids who are using them. In Part Three of our Digital DIY Class, Adrian Weckler explains how to use these apps and gives examples of what they're good for

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What is social messaging?

It's contacting someone - either by text, phone call, photos or videos - using an app or online service instead of your normal phone's text messaging service. It's generally free and most people now use one or other of the services, with traditional SMS 'texting' between phone numbers fading away as a result.

What's the difference between that and email?

Email is a little more formal and meant for longer individual tracts of text or bigger photo attachments. Social messaging is designed for shorter, more frequent, more casual interactions (like text messaging). It's also 'live' in the sense that you can often see whether someone you're messaging is online at the time or not. Finally, you have a lot more flexibility using social messaging. For example, you can call someone (using Facebook or Viber or Whatsapp) as well as just texting them.

If I download one of these apps, how do I find someone I might know?

Services such as Whatsapp and Viber will offer to check your phone contact list and tell you which ones also use their service. (This is because Whatsapp and Viber use the number combination of your mobile number as your personal login when you sign up.) For services like Facebook Messenger or Twitter direct messages, you can search for the person's name and it may return a list of people including the one you're looking for. For Snapchat, you usually have to know the username of the person you're trying to connect with.

Is this just for phones or can I use a tablet or PC?

These services are meant mostly for phones, although some can be used on PCs and tablets too. For instance, Snapchat is only available to use as a mobile app. Viber and Whatsapp are both used mainly on phones but have recently extended part of their services to desktop PCs. Skype, Facebook Messenger and Google Hangouts are all available equally across all devices.

What's the most popular service?

In Ireland, Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger are the most popular services, closely followed by Snapchat and Viber. Facebook Messenger has the most users overall (1.5m Irish people) because it's attached to Facebook. But Snapchat is the most used service by people who have it, with two-thirds of its 700,000 Irish users relying on it every day. Whatsapp and Viber have the same number of Irish account-owners (1.6m) but Whatsapp is way more active than Viber with half of Whatsapp users in Ireland texting and photo-sharing every day, compared to just a third of Viber users. Skype is a fading force in Ireland, with just one in 14 Irish Skype users sending messages or calls on a daily basis.

Do any of these have answering machine services?

Yes, although this comes in the form of sending a voice message instead of calling and leaving a message 'after the beep'. In Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger, you can send a voice message by just pressing the microphone button, recording your message and tapping 'send'. Snapchat focuses more on short video messages.

Can I use them to call traditional phones such as landlines or mobiles?

You can use Skype, Viber or Google Hangouts to call ordinary mobiles or landlines but it stops being free at that point. You have to set up credit card details or load up prepay credit for the services. In general, it's a couple of cents per minute for the call so it's still cheaper than paying some roaming charges if you're calling home from, for example, the US.

Do they have caller ID?

In general, the services that allow you to make phone calls all have caller ID.

Do I always have to have wifi?

No. You can use your phone's data connection for any of these services.

How much data do they use?

A simple text message over Whatsapp or Snapchat uses around the same amount of data as a text message, which is very little. You'll fit up to 50,000 messages into a basic mobile data package of 1GB. Picture messages take a little more data but nowhere near as much as emailing a photo to someone. Generally, these services are very efficient with data so as not to give you big mobile bills.

Are they expensive to use?

Almost all of the most popular services are free to use, once you have a wifi or phone data connection.

But are these services really free?

Yes, with a few catches (for now). The most-used services - Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat - have no ads of any kind visible to Irish users. Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger will eventually have some sort of ads or 'sponsored' content, according to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. And Snapchat is selling ads in the US. Skype and Viber both sell ads, while Google has other ways of using your personal data to make money.

Why are they free?

Many of these services are adjuncts to other money-making services, such as Facebook Messenger's relationship with (mega-profitable) Facebook. But most are still trying to get users bedded down before they figure out a way of 'monetising' them. This might take the form of ads in future, or it could come in the form of 'premium' features, such as conference-calling or more flexibility to call external landline and mobile numbers.

Are social messages set to public by default like some social networks?

Generally, no. Most of these services are aimed at one-to-one communications and sending messages to carefully selected groups of friends or contacts. Snapchat has a public 'My Story' feature that lets you 'post' photos or videos for anyone to see.

What's the quality of the calls like?

In general, calls are not as reliable in quality as calls on a normal phone or landline network. Sometimes there's a slight delay, too, on the line. But mostly, they're fine.

What sort of downsides do I need to know about using these services?

Although most of us are relatively comfortable with big online companies having access to certain tranches of information about us (such as email addresses, names and phone numbers), no-one can say for sure how these companies will use such personal data in the future.

Companies like Snapchat make a virtue of the fact that they don't use any of your personal data to sell to advertisers, but Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said that apps such as Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger will eventually start to 'monetise' these services with some sort of targeted advertising. That means using some part of your personal data to give companies access to you.

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