"Hey did you read that thing I sent you?" my husband asks. And I think, What thing? Where? He might have sent it by text, or by Facebook Messenger, or Google Hangouts and I'm going to have to go looking on my smartphone to find out.
My friends communicate via Facebook Messenger or text message, almost interchangeably. My Inc. colleagues and editors use Slack. My research assistant prefers to communicate by Hangouts or Skype. And my cousins in France rely on WhatsApp for text messages, voice calls, and sharing photos.
I'm struggling with all this and you probably are too. There are too many different mobile messaging apps and trying to manage them all causes too much confusion. And now that most of us are spending 70 percent of our internet time on our smartphones, and growing, there will likely be even more mobile messaging channels vying for space on our home screens.
Each of these apps promises the same benefit: You can message, call, or even video-call your friends and family without paying for calls or text messages. Although these days, text messages are often free and unlimited whereas the data these apps use is not. In reality, each was created with the same goal: to capture as much of your screen time and possible and draw you onto their platform where they can further engage your attention and also serve you ads.
What can you do about it? Not that much. Jordan McMahon of Wired has proposed that we all ditch all our messaging apps along with SMS itself and switch to an app called Signal en masse for all of our messaging. But of course that won't ever happen so if you do download and install it, Signal will just become another messaging app clamoring for your attention.
So what should you do instead? There are no great solutions to this problem, but here are some things that can make message app bloat just a little more tolerable:
1. Eliminate any apps you can.
Most of us love technology, and we're always downloading new apps to try out. That's fine, but when it comes to messaging apps, less is more. So don't download any more messaging apps unless you absolutely have to, for instance because it's your best customer's preferred way to communicate.
2. Close apps when you don't need them.
If you use Slack to communicate with your colleagues, you probably don't need to leave it open on weekends. Try to keep as many apps as you can on an as-needed basis. This is how I use Skype, for instance. I only open it when I've scheduled a voice or video Skype call, and as soon as it's over, I close it again.
3. Try to have a system.
This won't always work because the reason you have so many messaging apps in the first place is that your different contacts all prefer different ways of getting in touch. But if, say, you communicate with your foreign contacts mainly through WhatsApp, and your buddies mainly through Facebook Messenger and so on, it'll be easier to keep track of whom you're talking to where. At the very least, try to stick to one channel only for each of your contacts. That can go a long way toward reducing confusion.
4. Fine tune your notifications.
When it comes to managing competing messaging apps, getting your notifications set up the right way can make a big difference. The best setup is different for different people but in an ideal world, you'll be alerted right away to important messages, not bothered much by unimportant ones, and you'll be able to get messages any time anywhere without disturbing the people around you.
For me, the solution is having a smartwatch. As notifications from any of my messaging apps come through my phone, I'm alerted by a gentle buzz on my wrist. Among other things, this means I can leave my phone on silent most of the time. What works for you might be completely different. The point is to put some thought into finding your own closest-to-ideal solution.
5. Look for apps that work across devices.
I spend a lot of time working on a desktop or laptop, and also a lot of time on my tablet. So I want apps that work across all these devices so that I can get notifications, and also can respond, no matter what I'm doing when a message arrives.
Fortunately, as part of their overall effort to capture users' attention as much as possible, most messaging apps do sync across a variety of devices and the web, although that means you have to install each of these apps repeatedly in different places. A second solution is to use Pushbullet or something like it to automatically send notifications that come in on your smartphone to other devices.
Someday, I believe some entrepreneur will come along and create a client that aggregates all different messaging apps into a single contact point. Until then, no tactic will completely remove the pain of message app overload. But some of these steps might make it a little more tolerable.