The Evolution of Instant Messaging

You peel off the beautiful plastic off of your brand new $1,449.00 iPhone XS Max in an ASMR-inducing hype and power it on for the very first time. The all-glass back glimmers in your hands as the display comes to life. After setting up the beautiful piece of man-made machinery, you open the app store and download your #1 priority applications: Instagram and Snapchat. iMessage is pre-installed and you have already been fiending on GamePigeon for several consecutive 24-hour periods known as days. A few days later you are forced to install Whatsapp so that you can call your beloved foreign grandmother.

How do people interact with each other and communicate through social media? From the most widely-used platforms out there, like Snapchat and Instagram, to the built-in Apple iMessage, to popular third-party apps such as Whatsapp, so many different ways to text have appeared over time, and with them new etiquette and “rules for texting” have surfaced.

Even though Snap Inc. has faced recent financial troubles and IPO disasters amid a “mass user exodus” and trouble widening their user base, it still serves as the go-to application for “snapping” (no-pun-intended) party-pictures and sharing candid, “embarrassing” pictures of friends. Private stories, which are posts shared with only select groups of friends, are also popular. For the last few years, private stories have been unique to Snapchat, despite similar attempts from Instagram to mimic the stories feature and grab a wider user audience.

Conceptually, Snapchat messaging is ephemeral. This is one of the biggest selling points of the feature. Messages in group-chats last for 24 hours (unless they are saved) but even saved messages can be deleted by the sender as part of a recent 2018 update. Even still, one-on-one messages last only until the recipient opens them, and then once they swipe out of the conversation, it is gone forever. This “disappearing” feature alone is what garnered the majority of Snapchat’s initial hype and growth following its release in 2011.

Periphery including filters, stickers, gifs, live-calls, and streaks all expand the Snapchat messaging experience, with pictures and texting going hand-in-hand.

A major competitor to Snapchat, Instagram, has its own array of messaging features, some of which have obvious inspiration from our little ghost friend. The main selling point of Instagram direct messages (DMs) is that topical posts (popular pictures catering to different interests, etc.) from the platform can be sent with ease to one-on-one chats or large groups of people.

Many Instagram profiles exist for different interests and hobbies. If you are interested in freestyle skiing, you may follow an account that curates and posts pictures of people doing tricks which you can easily forward to your friend(s)same thing with food, clothing, sports, or beauty accounts.

Instagram DMs make it easy to text people about school, extracurriculars, or random questions in the absence of having their number. Many people have a personal Instagram account, making it incredibly easy to find them if you need to reach out, especially if they are an in another grade and you do not have access to their number. Instagram lets you easily search up someone’s name and DM them, which is very convenient for reaching people you rarely communicate with.

However, Instagram DMs are almost never used to ask someone where they are, for example, because people don’t usually respond to Instagram messages instantly. Since most people only receive random posts on Instagram, DMs are usually the last texts that people check. If you are in a free period and need to find someone, you would never DM them on Instagram since it might get lost in the flurry. Snapchat is used for this slightly more often, but conventional texting (iMessage) is more popular.

The main differences between Instagram and Snapchat come from the fundamentals each app is based on. The main attraction of Instagram DMs is that all of the platform’s content is at the user’s fingertips, easily shareable within the app 24/7. Instagram messaging is based around sharing posts, and on top of that, the feature was added in years after the social media’s initial launch. Comparatively, Snaphat’s design centers around the fact that messages, videos, and photos disappear, which is completely different from Instagram, and the main reason why each platform has attracted different texting uses.

Texting in Snapchat has a reputation for more low-key and casual messaging; when users want to slide-in more discreetly (trying not to be too forward), Snapchat is the way to go.

iMessage is useful for class group-chats, which are usually more serious and have no need for fancy filters or advanced photo or post sharing. However, even Apple has embraced exciting, more interactive additions, such as when they added group-facetime for up to 32 people (helpful for massive study sessions). iMessage and other built-in texting softwares are also great alternatives for casually texting family, friends, or groups.

Perhaps the most unique use for iMessage is gaming. With the introduction of the iMessage App Store in September of 2016, private developers have released innovative message-based applications such as Game Pigeon. The games offered by Pigeon include 8 Ball, Sea Battle, Cup Pong, Crazy 8 (with up to 6 players), Paintball, Chess, 9 Ball, Checkers, and many others. Cup Pong is especially widespread and never loses its popularity because of its fun and addictive style; especially after about two and a half years on the market. Though iMessage seems simple, or even boring, at the surface, the aspect of gaming with friends, something not offered on any other platform we have discussed, is powerful and widely acclaimed, with Game Pigeon boasting 43.8K ratings on the App Store.

At its core, iMessage offers a well-designed messaging platform that works exclusively between Apple devices. Instagram and Snapchat offer their own social media content that users can share as well as the ability to text, but iMessage on the other hand is simply an evolution of standard cell phone texting, which has been changing since the 2000s. iMessage offers the ability to text, send photos, GIFs, games, and videos, but is essentially a texting service with features tacked on. Besides varying behavioral usages, the main difference between iMessage, Snapchat, and Instagram is that the social media features of sharing posts, stories, and app-related content are completely absent from the iMessage user experience.

In contrast, WhatsApp, the largest messaging platform in the world, is aimed at solving the problems plaguing texting: international numbers, iMessage not working with Android, and the limitations of SMS. WhatsApp is a powerful messaging system—complete with voice and video-calling, voice messages, and other desirable features—all designed in a way that replicates the simplicity and ease-of-use of SMS, with the major bonus of texting international numbers. You verify your cell number, which then becomes your account. The use of phone numbers makes WhatsApp just like regular texting. However, the application is available on a wide variety of devices, both Android and iOS, therefore bridging the traditional gap of terrible group-chat functionality between the two platforms.

Because WhatsApp is based on internet protocols and not cellular networks, it’s widely accessible across international borders, allowing Android and iPhone devices to seamlessly interact in a way that is more intuitive than SMS (SMS does not work between US cell numbers and numbers in Asia, Europe, and many other parts of the world). Additionally, WhatsApp allows unlimited messages and calls over a Wi-Fi network, advantageous in countries where calling is limited by minutes and messages are throttled by monthly caps. In this way, WhatsApp is the epitome of what text messaging should be, an application that works seamlessly between iOS and Android across the planet.

WhatsApp is used by many with relatives living abroad—especially in Europe and Asia—where it is most prevalent. Users can communicate with their extended family smoothly, interchanging messages and phone calls back and forth in large group (or individual) chats without the added worry of paying for international service.

The prime differentiating factor of WhatsApp compared to all other means of digital communication is that from a fundamental standpoint, WhatsApp is conducive to effortlessly linking people across the globe. In terms of actual functionality, WhatsApp’s offerings act as more feature-rich and streamlined brother of iMessage, but in practice, different user application separates the two. Due to Facebook owning WhatsApp (and Instagram), social media-inspired features have been added to WhatsApp in recent years, giving people the ability share Instagram-style stories, update their status, and so on. Whereas iMessage works best between Apple devices on a domestic scale, Whatsapp, along with Instagram and Snapchat, connect people internationally.

On the technical side, all of the apps use different mechanisms of storing messages on servers or transmitting them directly, in either a “store and forward” way, or other designs. In any case, this shouldn’t affect users daily lives, however, iMessage is known to glitch out and lose messages in certain areas of low cellular connection and with handsets that are low on storage.

In terms of security, WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption, meaning that no one (including the government or nefarious actors) can snatch messages in mid-air and read them. This could be detrimental for several reasons as communication is best kept private as an instance of American morals and in the best interests of democracy. iMessage also benefits from end-to-end encryption and is praised for keeping well-documented security designs and undergoing various security audits. Instagram is not encrypted, while Snapchat is, which may inform and guide usage of specific apps.

Instead of looking at “which is the best”—most teenagers choose to utilize all available platforms to talk to the same peopleseemingly without reason. It is not uncommon to send someone a message on three different apps, and then once they get back to their phone you receive three texts back (and three notifications). Sometimes you will end up responding to their Instagram DM while you simultaneously get a text from them on iMessage, but while you are responding to that they text about a story you sent them on Snapchat.

This scenario perfectly illustrates the polarization of the messaging landscape because even if you are connected to the same people on all of these platforms, you find yourself still using every app imaginable to communicate with them. Because of each platform’s varying content, each has separate sharable material. Ironically, it is surprisingly common to have the same group-chat on three different platforms (one on Snapchat, one on Instagram, and one on iMessage) so that it is convenient to share content from each respective app.

All messaging platforms are ultimately defined by their users. What people text to one another shapes a widely-accepted usage of each platform, with many social media applications now having a stigma about who uses them, what they are used for, and why people use them. Each essentially does the same thing, but different motivations to use each one have become a factor over time. People’s preference for different texting mediums comes down to who they can communicate with and the convenience and accessibility of each app. Although Snapchat, Instagram, iMessage, and WhatsApp all have their different uses, the most important thing is that the user chooses whichever one that affords them the most enjoyable experience, whether that be through funny dog-filters or beating their friends in Cup Pong.

Logan Richman and Aaron Friedman
staff writers

Graphic: Logan Richman

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