Facebook 'Friends'? Nah, Group Chat Apps Link Real Friends

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Forget so-called Facebook "friends" -- the latest trend in social media is about helping real friends connect in real-time.

You might love swapping status updates and photos with hundreds of acquaintances online, but a new category of smartphone applications wants to help you when you take your closest relationships offline.

Download these group messaging apps to your phone, and you can exchange texts, photos and voice messages with potentially dozens of friends and family members in one fell swoop. (The services are free and if you message within the app, you can avoid text messaging charges. But if you exchange text messages, you still have to pay as you normally would according to your cell phone plan.)

"This just takes the idea that if I want to communicate with a certain number of people about an idea, the message gets there," said Mike Melanson, a writer for the new media blog ReadWriteWeb. "On Facebook, I can post a status update and say 'I'm going to this party' or 'I'm going swimming, anyone want to come?' [And Facebook] sends it to any number of people. ...Maybe they respond, maybe they don't. It's not really communication at that point."

With group chat apps, users can limit the conversation to those they really want to participate and be sure that their message gets across.

At the South by Southwest Interactive Festival this week, the annual geek extravaganza in Austin, Texas, the group messaging battle was in full swing as several start-ups from around the country tried to win over iPhone-toting techies.

Check out five of the top apps below.

GroupMe

One of the most buzzed-about leaders of the pack, GroupMe says it's a "private chat room for any phone."

Launched by two twenty-something New Yorkers familiar with the start-up scene, the free app for iPhones, BlackBerrys and Android phones sets up a dedicated phone number for every group.

With that number, up to 25 people can text, share their location and exchange photos. If they want to have a group call, they can call the number to start a conference.

While smartphone users can exchange messages through SMS or the application itself, the app works on so-called "dumb" phones too -- as long as your phone can text, you can join the chat room chatter.

And, the founders emphasize that it can be used by anyone who wants to start a group conversation -- from friends planning a night out or weekend away to family members who want to stay updated during an emergency. In their words, it's "Your real life network."

Beluga

Another top contender, Beluga lets users set up "pods" of people for private messaging.

Launched by three former Google employees, the free app exists for iPhone and Android phones (they say a BlackBerry version is on its way).

The start-up was just purchased by Facebook, so users can log-in with a separate user name and password or through their Facebook account. As you might expect, if you take the Facebook route, the app asks to integrate with your Facebook contacts, wall messages and other private information.

Like GroupMe, the service can be used for message-, photo- and location-sharing and can be used by non-smartphone users. But conference calling is not included.

Why is it called Beluga? Because "Beluga whales are smart, mobile and social -- just like our apps (and our users). Plus, they're damn cute," the company says.

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