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The Evolution of Messenger Apps

While Facebook has reigned supreme as the king of social media throughout most of the world, messenger apps have slowly grown from an alternative way to text, into complex multi-function social media platforms. In the U.S., messenger type apps have evolved much slower than internationally, however these apps are quickly becoming similar to their international counterparts.

Messenger apps were developed when companies still charged for text messages and app stores were still in their infancy. These quickly became an alternative to sending an SMS message by utilizing data to send messages. Not long after development; some apps, such as WhatsApp, began to allow sending images through the app which only increased the allure of messaging apps. For example, by 2014, WhatsApp had grown to 650 million active users worldwide in five years.

As WhatsApp was growing worldwide, Line and WeChat were taking Asia by storm. Line, launched in 2011, quickly became Japan’s largest social network by 2013. This same type of growth was seen in China with WeChat who claimed to have 500 million active users by 2015. After saturating their respective markets, Line and WeChat started to market towards an international reach. By the end of 2016, Line claimed to have 30% of users originate outside of Asia. WeChat claims 76 million of the over 800 million active users are international users.

Lately the Asian based messaging apps have seen decreasing users which has resulted in significant changes to their platforms. Moving beyond messaging, these apps are attempting to become a major social media player. Line app began providing a timeline, similar to Facebook’s newsfeed. As the company expanded it introduced over 35 apps, mostly available in Japan, which provide games, music streaming, Uber like LineTaxi, and payment services. In China WeChat has become a behemoth social network in users lives. Through the app users can; book a train ticket, order food, play the lottery, order merchandise, play videogames, mobile bank, and allow users to renew their visa. Celebrities in China use the app in a fashion similar to celebrities using Instagram in the U.S. These once simple messaging apps are now an integral part of individuals lives in their respective countries.

Despite the growth of these apps in Asia, the global reach of WeChat was immense. By 2014, WhatsApp had over 500 million active users. This success and global appeal of the app created the right environment for an acquisition. Foreseeing a potential rival in the future, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion. While a noticeable number of users fled falling under Facebook’s umbrella, the app still grew and has over 1 billion users today. While under Facebook, the app has added end to end encryption in communications and recently introduced features similar to SnapChat, status updates that disappear after 24 hours.

The evolution of messaging apps must include SnapChat. Once considered to be jokingly a sexting app,due to the temporary nature of photos shared on the app, SnapChat has grown to become a rival to Instagram. Facebook attempted to purchase SnapChat for $3 billion in 2013, and now just copies features from SnapChat admittedly in their own Instagram platform. As SnapChat is announcing their IPO this week; expected to be around $16 billion value, turning down Facebook appears to have become a good decision. SnapChat has grown from sharing temporary pictures to; adding stories, which last 24 hours and can be seen by friends, Snaps sponsored by brands, and SnapCash, which allows the app to begin monetizing the app. Today SnapChat has over 158 million active users. Besides Instagram, other apps have copied some of SnapChat’s features in their own platform, thus highlighting how important this app has become to social messaging networks.

While messaging apps in the U.S. has not reached the domination of WeChat or Line in their respective countries, the potential is very close. Facebook has forced active users to utilize the messenger app, which has grown from a way to privately message users into a mini social network within a network. In addition, one no longer needs a Facebook account in order to use Messenger. With features, such as video chat and money transfers, the messenger app is continually growing. The virtual assistant, MoneyPenny has been in production over the past two years and will provide features similar to WeChat when released. With 700 million active users, Facebook’s messenger app could become the pinnacle of messenger apps.

The growth of messaging apps is important to consider as they have created a critical intelligence gap within law enforcement investigations. Once developed as a workaround to SMS messaging, these apps are becoming thriving social media networks. The telecom companies do not have access to these communications in their records, thus hundreds of millions of conversations are being missed. For example, I have numerous international friends I chat, share videos and images with, and have voice calls with casually through Line. Without gaining access to my phone, how can law enforcement gain obtain these conversations? Also of note, Line’s servers are in Japan, thus all operations are conducted in accordance with Japanese laws. Another hurdle includes these companies adding end to end encryption to conversations as a feature, increasing the difficulty for law enforcement.

I’ve personally experienced law enforcement use of Facebook as an investigative tool take about seven years to become the standard throughout the U.S. Messaging apps have grown significantly faster than social media sites and need to at least be on the radar of law enforcement agencies today. If we continue to ignore the power of these apps, the typical game of catch up will negate ability to obtain useful information for investigations. Contact Juliet Bravo Solutions today for all your social media training needs.

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