Depending on how tech-savvy you are, you may or may not have heard of the messaging app “Signal” before. If you haven’t, you’re about to. The WhatsApp alternative has been going through a period of exponential growth during the past two months, and the developers behind the platform are now looking to expand their creation’s offerings in an attempt to persuade its new users to stick around. Based on the new features that have been added with the app’s latest update, it’s stepping out of its box as a secure end-to-end message service and attempting to become a new social network.
Signal has two things to thank for its sudden rise to prominence. The first is a mess of Facebook’s own making when it comes to its universally-popular WhatsApp messaging service. The company would like to integrate WhatsApp more closely with its central Facebook product and issued new terms and conditions a little over a month ago that signaled (pun not intended) this intention. To say that the service’s hundreds of millions of users were unenthusiastic about this prospect would be an understatement. What happened in the days following the introduction of the new terms and conditions has been described as the biggest digital migration in the history of the planet as users deleted WhatsApp from their phones and went looking for alternative messaging services. Telegram was also a beneficiary of this migration, but Signal was the big winner.
While it was dealing with this influx of new users, Signal got a second unexpected boost. This time, it came from disenfranchised Donald Trump supporters and conservatives who found themselves purged from Twitter in the aftermath of the Capitol riots on January 6th. While Twitter might not be a messaging platform in the strictest sense, it’s a place where like-minded people communicate between themselves using hashtags and the direct messaging service. Suddenly evicted from Twitter, tens of thousands of people sought out Signal as a new alternative. Signal went from being a mostly-unknown platform to being the talk of the internet in fewer than eight weeks and initially struggled with the surge in demand. Its servers went down more than once, and there was a backlog in dealing with new account applications. Its founders pleaded (somewhat ironically) on Twitter to be allowed more time to adjust to the new reality. That adjustment period now appears to be complete, and Signal has become a very different platform from the one that existed at the end of 2020.
None of the features that have been added in the latest app updates are ‘new’ from the point of view of anyone who uses other messaging services or social media websites, but they are new to Signal. For the first time, Signal users can set wallpaper backgrounds for their chats. They can use animated emojis and stickers in their communications. Perhaps more tellingly in terms of the platform’s future direction, there’s also an “about me” section for users to fill in. That’s more of a social media feature than a messaging service feature, and looks like a foundation upon which Signal intends to build in the months to come. There are a few data-friendly upgrades in with the package, including better image compression and lower data usage when making calls to other Signal users.
The intention of all of these changes seems to be to make new users feel more comfortable when using Signal and give them features that they’re accustomed to seeing on other apps they use or have used in the past. However, at the same time, the changes run the risk of making Signal feel less unique. Until now, Signal’s USP was that it was a simple, data-secure messaging app that did a basic job and did it well. Now it’s in danger of heading down the same path of uniformity that we can see with online slots websites like Rose Slots. In the early days of casino websites, the offering at each online slots website was unique. Now, because of consumer demand and a desire not to be left behind by their rivals, they’re largely identical. The same games appear on the same websites and are offered on the same terms. What makes one online slots website better than another is the terms, conditions, and incentives rather than the products. These changes mean that Signal won’t have that edge. It’s started to offer all the same services that its rivals offer but doesn’t offer anything that makes it unique. It’s easy to see why the developers have been tempted to go down this path, but it might take a while before we find out whether it was a good idea or not.
While the new features might make using Signal a more comfortable, familiar experience for new users, existing users might not be so welcoming. Until it reached the mainstream, Signal was seen as a ‘serious’ platform for ‘serious’ people. That’s why the European Commission has used Signal rather than WhatsApp to communicate since a directive to do so was issued in February 2020. People who’ve had Signal for a long time weren’t drawn to it because they wanted to use emojis or because they wanted to set a quirky background for conversations with their contacts. They downloaded it because they wanted a no-frills secure messaging service without any of the distractions that came with other services. They still have that because the core service of Signal hasn’t changed, but it now comes with many of the features that some users may have been consciously trying to avoid elsewhere.
Nobody knows whether Signal is here to stay. The internet can be a cruel place to do business, and when something goes viral, it can be forgotten just as quickly. Facebook is already showing signs that it’s learned its lesson from trying to push privacy-breaching changes on its users and has suggested that it might be willing to back away from them. Twitter has already revised some of its recent bans and suspensions and allowed people to return to the platform. People have a tendency to stick with what they know when it comes to technology, and far more people have WhatsApp accounts than Signal accounts. It makes no sense to be on Signal when the people you want to speak to don’t use the service, so there’s a strong chance that a lot of the people who’ve deleted WhatsApp in the past two months will come back to it. Signal may or may not achieve long term growth as a result of this sudden surge of interest, but at least it’s trying to make hay while the sun is shining.