All the Voices in my Hand

This is the source of my despair.

From the top left: Signal, a private and encrypted messaging app; Facebook Messenger, a last resort to contact a friend as we rarely share phone numbers these days; Whatsapp, staple communication application of nearly everyone outside the United States (seriously, visit Southeast Asia sometime); Snapchat, for the handful of family members who don’t share much on Facebook; Messages, for the luddites still using SMS or the Chosen Ones using Apple devices and iMessage; Hangouts, refugees from AIM (everybody in college had a Google account) and, naturally, every Googler I know; Hipchat, for those too corporate for Slack; Slack, for those finally giving up on Atlassian’s slow performance and lacking features in Hipchat to be “with it”; and Yahoo Messenger, because I haven’t gotten around to deleting it just yet (it used to be our main corporate chat application…kind of).

The number of chat apps is too damn high.

Chat seems like such a simple idea. Near-realtime communications (depending on the participants) that allows communication via text. I mean, via more than 140 characters. I mean, with emojis. Gifs? Yeah, gifs. Video…seems like a worthy addition? Going to need audio for that to work. Probably should have the ability to call phone numbers too while we’re at it. Should we charge for that? Maybe, but only in very specific circumstances, like when you’re on a cellular network and the person you’re calling is facing True North. How about group chat? Well, some people aren’t going to be on the same service, so we’ll probably want to be able to communicate with those who are still using SMS, since everyone probably definitely has a cell phone number with a SMS plan they’re not gouged $0.10 per message for receiving an unsolicited, unblockable message. While we’re handling some SMS, we might as well allow the chat app (on Android, where it’s allowed) to manage your phone’s SMS messages as well.

I think you’re starting to see the first issue with the current state of chat: feature creep. The simplicity of being able to communicate via text isn’t as simple once it’s in somebody’s vested interest to look like they’re achieving something with their product; “it just works” is not a valuable mantra at a growth company in a growth industry like tech companies. As one example, in response to the bloat and feature set of Hangouts, Google decided to try to simplify its offerings via two new apps: Allo and Duo. While a valiant attempt, they underestimated people’s unwillingness to further fragment an already fragmented part of their digital lives. Regardless of the speed, reliability, or utility of their new applications, the cost of joining a new communications network (unhelpfully, Allo is not backwards-compatible with your Hangouts contacts) was too damn high.

Which leads us to the second problem with most chat applications and services: walled gardens. Few services still maintain the ability to speak to members of other services. Hangouts used to allow Jabber/AIM clients to communicate with users (in the Google Talk days, anyway), and Slack does allow IRC clients to interoperate, but in general this ability is curtailed at best and unavailable at worst. I think the average person doesn’t look at a chat app and consider the “network” they’re joining. I think the average person asks a simple question, “Can I communicate easily with the people I want to communicate with?” Further complicating this discussion are studies like the one that showed people were more likely to communicate with “blue” contacts as opposed to “green” contacts, or other iMessage users versus contacts using SMS. What the study didn’t mention as far as I’m aware is whether there was a causative link between likeliness to contact iMessage users, or merely that people are most likely to have the same brand of devices as their friends and family and thus iPhone users are more likely to be communicating with other iPhone users [citation needed].

People want to communicate; it’s really that simple. It’s this realization that resulted in one of the key insights for Whatsapp; namely, a user’s phone number was “good enough” as an identifier on a smart phone and would allow users to skip the onerous process of signing up for an account and adding friends. The “sorry not sorry” nature of most applications asking for access to all your contacts and their information is another point of disconnect between the users of chat apps and the makers of chat apps, on which Whatsapp was able to capitalize. Product managers are “trying to make it easier” for users to communicate, with the added side effect of driving up usage. However, I don’t think they make their case effectively enough for most users to give up their entire address book so they can “connect with more of their friends.” By contrast, Whatsapp offered a clear value proposition: we’re going to use your phone number to identify you to your friends, so it naturally follows that we’ll need access to your address book to identify the people with whom you’ll be communicating. Of course, this handily leaves out the grandmothers with iPads (but not iPhones) with no phone number to call their own.

The cognitive load this variety of applications, all to achieve the same end goal, cannot be underestimated. Each application has its own conventions, interface, behaviors, and philosophy. Each requires a small space in your head to identify which of your contacts is able to communicate on which app, or, worse yet, which contact is most likely to respond on a given chat application. Each application ignores the existence of the other, because their true goal is not to allow you to communicate, but instead to tie you more tightly to the network of which they are a part. While in some cases this criticism is not quite accurate (Signal, as one example, as part of its value proposition explicitly is not interoperable with other networks), it broadly applies to Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Slack, iMessage, and even the humble SMS.

iMessage likely offends one’s sensibilities the most. Initially it seemed to have a laudable goal: to make inter-phone communication modern and high quality, unlike the ancient and tired SMS standard. However, at the same time it locks a user into the Apple ecosystem, not allowing users of Windows or Linux to use their computers to act as a client for iMessage. While only a mild convenience, it stands as yet another example of the nearly invisible strands tightly binding users to a given ecosystem of applications, services, and products.

This is the fundamental insight into why chat applications and platforms are the way they are; they are chains. Chains that bind you to a company as a means to extract money from you in other ways. Signal and Slack stand as somewhat exceptions to this with open APIs and easy integrations.

In contrast, a service like Matrix might be the savior we need. Matrix puts the user in control of their data, for better or for worse. It does not depend on another product or service to pay for its development, thus it might have a chance to actually focus on the main purpose of chat apps: communication between people. It suffers from the usual ills of open source software: too much is asked of the user, users are unfamiliar and therefore unaware, and it does not make its value proposition obvious.