Are Super Apps the Future of Online Messaging?

“We’re having a real-time conversation right now that feels like it’s real.” – Winder Hughes, CEO Relevnt

The Internet has kept us alive throughout the global pandemic. As we were forced inside and isolated, we all lost a degree of irreplaceable sociability. The Internet became one of the only avenues for socialization and conversation. Music lovers, sports fans, and every single hobby and interest that rely on in-person connection was severely impacted as people scrabbled to find a way to keep their passions alive during such a secluded time.

2020 was also a massive year for social change, and in the first few months of 2021, this year seems to be following suit. With the combined social pressures of the global pandemic, along with other social causes like the Black Lives Matter movement, and the more recent #StopAsianHate movement, now more than ever people are rising to meet the apparent needs of our time.

The past year has proven the necessity of the Internet in building communities, but are the resources we have sufficient for what we need? In a time when we’re more confined to ourselves than ever before, can online communication be a real replacement for in-person interaction? Innovations in the way we conversate online, especially with the popularization of audio chat and so-called “super apps,” are moving us closer and closer to a true solution.

Social to Parasocial – And Back Again

The Internet has always been a space for people to talk about the hobbies and interests they love. Even before the pandemic, approximately 67% of sports fans regularly consumed some kind of sports content using social media. Communities and forums for those who follow a certain sport, a certain team, or their favorite musical artist are useful spaces for people to connect over their personal interests, but they have never been a replacement for in-person interaction.

Social media has become an attractive method by which fans can connect via the Internet. Browsing on Instagram, you’ll see musicians and celebrities speaking to their fans or playing music via Instagram Live; a unique and innovative way to connect, but it begs the question of how close online interaction can come to real in-person human interaction. It’s been long remarked that connections via social media are not as strong as physical human connections – that your hundreds of Facebook friends are not your real friends.

Parasocial interaction is a term commonly used to describe the relationship between those in an audience watching a show on TV to the performers, and it’s also applicable to the relationship between those posting and those scrolling through posts. In other words, our relationships with people online is perceived through a thick barrier – the lack of intimacy and immediacy prevents genuine and healthy connections from forming. “It’s an asynchronous past-tense thing. You post a picture, people will comment on it later on, but it’s not like right now, like we’re having a real-time conversation right now that feels like it’s real,” said Relevnt’s Winder Hughes.

Some have claimed that complete disconnection from social media and networking is what we need to save us, but in an increasingly digitized world, it might be hard to entirely disengage. Instead, new forms of social media and messaging are rising up and hoping to provide people with this needed sense of intimacy and immediacy.

Super Apps: The future of online communication

Super apps have been popular in China for a while now. People use WeChat to talk, message, browse, even make doctor appointments, and while this certainly increases the degree to which their lives have been digitized, the unification of these features makes connecting easier and quicker.

While there are no Western apps that have risen to the level of WeChat in China, apps like Facebook and Twitter have made a push into the super app landscape. Twitter recently added an audio chat feature called Spaces in an attempt to bring new life to their service, which has seen declines in recent months. Facebook has been steadily adding features to mirror the multi-faceted nature of apps like WeChat, but the increased politicization of Facebook and Twitter have turned people away.

People have sought out new ways to connect online, without the level of oversight and interference common on these big tech apps. Relevnt, an app being developed by the previously mentioned Winder Hughes and his team, is a rising example of an American app that meshes multiple messaging and discussion features into a single cohesive app that provides users with a public forum for open discussion about whatever they want. People who use Relevnt interact using different community-based chat rooms called “Vibes,” similar to subreddits on Reddit, except instead of scrolling through posts, users directly talk using audio chat and text functions.

Hughes, a veteran investor, thought of the idea when he was looking for people to play music with. There just aren’t many solutions for people who want to talk about their interests online with any level of immediacy. “I think it’s the combination of, live chat and live audio, the combination, nobody really has… and then all the other things you can do with it, like sharing links and the community aspect and having it really made for mobile, makes it more special,” Hughes said.

Live streaming has been a boon to the music industry, where musicians can play live for an audience, or connect with their fans directly. App features like Instagram Live allow one to speak to many, but when the same connectability is applied to large groups who are already united by their interests, like in Hughes’ Relevnt, we see a notable increase in immediacy and intimacy. Group chat rooms have been a feature of the Internet for a long time, but providing a space for an audible discussion, more of a public forum, for those in different communities to directly interact is the next evolution in mobile messaging features.

The best way to talk about the issues that matter

It’s not just these interest-based communities that are finding new ways to communicate online, social causes are growing like never before due to the Internet. Over one-third of social media users say that they use the sites to post about causes that matter to them. These sites have brought awareness to important issues, but they have also raised issues of performative activism, from both users and the sites themselves. While raising concerns on social media is important, people need actual spaces free from manipulation to discuss these controversial issues and ways to address them, rather than just browsing through posts.

We see through the ways people discuss social issues online, an even greater need for immediacy and intimacy on social platforms. These spaces have given people the opportunity to spread genuinely useful information on social causes, but this info is often shadowed by the previously mentioned performative activism, which is brought by the lack of intimacy felt between social media users and their audiences.

This was shown in 2020 when over 28 million Instagram users posted a plain black square to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This allowed people to show their support, but the millions of black squares drowned out genuinely important information about the issue that people needed to know. A greater degree of intimacy on social platforms can grant people an understanding of these social issues, and the best ways to address them, rather than hopping on misguided trends.

With more direct apps that provide a space for open discussions, like the previously mentioned Relevnt, people can learn a lot more about the social causes that matter to them. “We had this idea to make a collection of vibes for the black community, to give the black community a voice and an easier way for them to connect with each other, because not everyone knows each other. I think it’s a good way for that community to connect,” Hughes said.

The future of online messaging

Messaging apps are great places for people to meet online. People have been using the Internet to interact in unique ways since its creation, and as technology grows, these interactions become more and more human. Now with the ability to conversate online in much the same way as talking to someone in person, a significant shift into the digital age has taken place. One can see a future where online conversations and public forums become more popular than in-person interaction, especially when the global pandemic puts the safety of these in-person gatherings in question.

Social messaging technology has allowed human beings to come together in unforeseen ways. When human interaction and important social causes are prioritized in these apps, we can see how the landscape of online messaging is set to shift in the near future.