Custom vibrations and other ways to shake up your smartphone messages

Do more with your favorite communication apps.
A person using their phone while wearing a face mask and wearing a red plaid shirt.

Instant messaging might seem simple, but you may not know all the tricks. Charles Deluvio / Unsplash

This story has been updated. It was originally published on October 24, 2017.

Whether you call it texting, instant messaging, or anything else, sending a message to someone has never been easier. The variety of messaging apps available today all seem pretty straightforward, but you’re bound to find something new if you dig a little deeper into their settings and features.

Facebook Messenger

Mute threads

Of course you love your friends and family. But you don’t necessarily want your phone to ping you every single time one of them shares something on Facebook Messenger. This is especially true for those group chats where people casually chat all day long.

If you need a break from notifications, you can mute specific threads. This means you won’t receive new message notifications about that particular conversation for a certain period of time. If you get curious, you can still check a muted conversation manually. Or just practice patience and catch up with everything after the silent period has ended.

To mute a thread, open the app and select a chat. Then tap on the name of the person or group and tap Mute. At this point, you can select whether you’d like to silence message alerts, call notifications, or both, as well as a time period: anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours, or until you manually disable the block.

Take advantage of the online platform

If you want to carry on conversations without picking up your phone every two minutes, you can access Messenger online by visiting the Facebook website. But here’s an even better option: Navigate to Messenger’s own separate interface, available at You can use that page to log into your account from any web browser.

The Messenger website gives you all the advantages of online chatting without the distraction of the full-fat Facebook site. Also unlike Facebook, it won’t serve you ads, allowing the site to run more smoothly and simply. On top of that, you get easy access to some neat extras, like the ability to customize each chat with colors (the Customize Chat option appears on the right) and a panel for shared photos (find it at the bottom of the right-hand sidebar). This feature is also available in the mobile app: tap the name of the chat to bring up the customization menu.

Google Hangouts

Search chats in Gmail

Google’s chatting service has had many names over the years, and now, Google Chat will replace Hangouts by the end of 2021. The company is already rolling out this new iteration on individual accounts, and you may even have access to both messaging platforms. That may not last long, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with Google Chat.   

Google Hangouts backed up all your conversations to your Gmail account and stored them as emails, which came in handy when searching your conversation histories. Google Chat doesn’t do that exactly, but when you use the service in the Gmail tab—integrated almost the same way Hangouts was—you’ll be able to search your chat history from the email interface. 

To do this, open a conversation and click the three dots in the upper right corner of the pop-up window. On the drop-down menu, choose Search in this chat—your cursor will automatically change to the Gmail search bar, where you’ll be able to type whatever it is you’re looking for within that specific chat.

If you’re looking for something but you’re not sure where it is, you can go directly to the Gmail search bar and look for it. When Google Chat is activated, you’ll see a new toggle switch in the top left corner of the results window that says Mail or Chat & Rooms. By default, Gmail will show you results from within your inbox, but if you choose Chat & Rooms, you’ll see the results for the same words but only within chat histories.

[Related: 9 advanced Gmail searches]

Keep in mind that while Google Chat is currently in the rollout process, there may still be some of your Google Hangouts chat archive that hasn’t migrated to the new service. If that’s the case, you’ll see a banner at the bottom of the results page saying There are additional items in your Classic Hangouts archive that match this search. To see them, go all the way to the right of the banner and click on View.  

Format the text

You can add some emphasis and feeling to your Google Chat messages by formatting them. As long as you’re in a web browser—either the chat window in Gmail or the website at—you can add bold, italic, and underlined text to your conversations to convey your points more forcefully.

On a Windows machine, hit Ctrl+B to make text bold, Ctrl+I for italics, and Ctrl+U for underline. If you’re working on macOS rather than Windows, you can employ the same commands, but replace Ctrl with the Cmd key. 

While you can’t apply the same formatting shortcuts to messages you type on your phone, you can still format your text by using punctuation—add asterisks (*) at the beginning and end of a sentence to make it bold, or replace it with an underscore (_) to make it italic.

Messages for iOS

Create custom vibrations

You probably prefer some friends to others (sorry, Joe!). And those people may deserve a faster response from your iPhone. In fact, iOS lets you figure out who’s messaging you before you even take your phone out of your pocket. That’s because its default Messages app lets you set up custom vibrations for different contacts.

To do this, go into Contacts, tap a person whose messages you want to prioritize, and then choose Edit in the top right. Choose Text Tone, then Vibration, and Create New Vibration. Now you can tap out a personalized vibration pattern for this friend, or simply choose a vibration pattern from the list.

While you’re visiting the Text Tone screen, you can also set an individual ringtone for that specific contact. This will tell you the messenger’s identity through audible alerts rather than discreet buzzes.

Say it with a drawing

In recent years, Apple has added some fun features to Messages for iOS. One of our favorite options is the ability to send a hand-drawn doodle when ordinary words and pictures just won’t do.

First, open a thread with a contact or group of contacts. Next, tap the apps icon to the left of the typing field (it looks like an “A”) and scroll right until you find Digital Touch (two fingers on a heart). If you’re using your phone in landscape mode, you should not have to scroll to reach the Digital Touch icon. Finally, write out your message or doodle on the screen. When you tap the blue send arrow, Messages will beam your scribble to your chosen friends.


Hide your activity

By default, WhatsApp tells other people about your past activity: it shows them when you were last active in the app and when you read incoming messages. If you’re intensely private, or you just don’t like the way these options work, you can switch them off.

[Related: 6 secure alternatives to WhatsApp]

Start by opening the app on your phone. On Android, tap the three dots in the top right, then Settings, Account, and Privacy; on iOS, tap Settings in the lower right, then Account, and Privacy. The two settings you’ll want to switch off are Last Seen and Read Receipts.

There’s one downside to changing these settings: If you switch them off, you’ll disable the features for your own use as well. That means you won’t be able to see when your contacts used the app last, or when they first viewed your messages.

Share your location

For some time, apps like Snapchat have let people share their location with their contacts in real time. This comes in handy when you want to meet a group of friends at a certain point, or show a worried parent how your journey is progressing without having to text them every half hour. WhatsApp has this ability as well. Here’s how to use it.

Inside a chat or a group chat, tap the paper clip to the right of the text box, then Location, and choose Share live location. Next, select a time period—15 minutes, 1 hour, or 8 hours—during which the recipients will be able to peek at your position. Now, everyone in the chat group you’ve selected will be able to see where you are (or rather where your phone is) until the time limit expires. You can also switch the feature off manually before the time runs out.

Social media apps

Save your messages in Snapchat

Most people think of Snapchat as a photo-sharing app, not a messaging tool. Still, it has all the features you need from an instant messenger, including group chats, audio and video calls, and the ability to share your location with others. You can even make conversations stick around as they would on a traditional messaging app.

Snapchat being Snapchat, your text messages automatically disappear once they’ve been viewed. But if you want to be able to remember what’s been said—when a conversation spreads out over several days, disappearing messages make it difficult to keep track of what’s going on—you can stop this from happening. Simply press and hold on any message (whether it’s one you’ve sent or received). Then select Save in Chat from the menu that appears.

Send private photos in Instagram

Like Snapchat, Instagram didn’t make its name as an instant messenger. However, it now has all the features you need to strike up conversations with individual contacts. (That is, when you’re not busy adding filters to photos or even making your own.)

To communicate privately, tap the instant message button in the top right (it looks like a paper airplane) and then hit the new message icon (a pencil on a square). Next, search for a contact or choose one from the list on the screen. If you’d like to send the message to more than one person, tick multiple people. Hit Chat in the top right and you can then write a message to that person or group, and even add a photo to your missive: Press the image icon to send them a photo from your gallery, or select the camera icon to snap a disappearing picture, which will vanish once the recipient views it.

Instagram also gives you a shortcut to send individuals any photo you encounter in your feed. Under each picture, you’ll see the same paper airplane icon. Tap it to send a photo to your chosen contacts.