March 16, 2011 -- 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.
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."
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.
With the tag line "Built to Party," Fast Society says it isn't just about sharing messages, but sharing experiences.
Similar to its peers, the free app for iPhones lets users set up private groups (in their lingo, "teams") but the partying aspect is front and center.
"Coordinating and staying in touch with friends can suck. We make it awesome," the New York-based company says.
To start, users set up teams that can last from a few hours to a few days (or forever). Then they can reach the entire group with one short text messaging code, set up an instant conference call or pull up a map showing each group member's location.
It also lets users send voice mail-type "shout outs" to group members and share public invites on Facebook and Twitter.
With a "past team view" feature, group members can also go back in time and re-live the experience.
Party people, here's another application for you.
The Austin-based start-up Hurricane Party lets users connect with groups of friends, but for the purpose of scouting out and starting impromptu and predetermined get-togethers.
Once you log in with Facebook Connect, the free iPhone app helps you locate parties nearby, start a party and see what your friends are up to. It also integrates with other social networks to clue you in to how happening each of the parties are.
Hurricane Party locates each party on a map, lets you rsvp inside the app to show friends your plans and lets users be as public or private as they like.
Available for Android phones, iPhones and iPods, Kik lets users share messages and photos with group members around the world.
But it doesn't just tell you when a message has been sent and delivered. It lets you know when it's been read and even when someone is in the process of writing back.
The company says it's a cut above the competition because of its speed, but because messages can only be exchanged within the app (messages don't count against your texting plan), it only works for those with smartphone.