10 instant messaging hacks to talk more good

Do more with your favorite communication app.

Facebook Messenger

1. 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 that 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 navigate to your list of conversations. Then long-press on the thread you want to mute and choose Mute notifications. At this point, you can select your time period: anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours, or until you manually disable the block.

2. 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 messenger.com. Through that page, you can 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 some neat extras, like the ability to customize each chat with colors (this option appears on the right) and a panel for shared photos (find it down in the corner).

While you’re visiting the site, you can set it to send you desktop notifications about new messages. Follow the same steps whether you’re on Windows or macOS: Click the cog icon on the top left, then hit Settings, and turn on desktop notifications.

Google Hangouts

3. Search through chats in Gmail

One of the advantages of keeping your IM conversations on Google Hangouts is that it backs up everything to your Gmail account. To see your conversations, click the Chats link on the left side of the Gmail web page, or type “in:chats” into the search box.

This type of access lets you open any browser to review your messages and look up important information, such as phone numbers, addresses, or meeting spots. You can also star and label chats, just like you would with any other Gmail message, to organize your conversations. This makes threads easier to find when you need them.

In another integration between the two services, you can reply to a Hangout message with an email or forward it to another person’s email address. To send Hangout messages to your Gmail contacts, access these messages via the Hangouts panel on the lower left side of the page. If you can’t see this panel, then enable the feature: Click the cog icon on the right, then Settings, then Chat, and turn it on.

4. Format the text

You can add some emphasis and feeling to your Hangouts messages by formatting them. As long as you’re in a web browser, either the chat window in Gmail or the website at hangouts.google.com, 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, any formatting that you’ve entered on a computer will show up when you check the conversation on Hangouts for Android or iOS.

Messages for iOS

5. Customize friends’ 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 on the top right. Choose Text Tone, then Vibration, then Create New Vibration. Now you can tap out your own 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 individual ringtones for specific contacts. These will notify you of the messenger’s identity through audible alerts rather than discreet buzzes.

6. 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 handwriting button: the little squiggle down in the bottom right corner of the keyboard. If you’re on an iPhone, then in order to find the handwriting button, you’ll need to turn your phone sideways to get the landscape mode keyboard. Finally, write out your message or doodle on the screen. When you tap Done, Messages will beam your scribble to your chosen friends.

WhatsApp

7. 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.

Start by opening the app on your phone. On Android, tap the three dots on the top right, then Settings, Account, and Privacy; on iOS, tap Settings on the lower right, then Account, and Privacy. The two settings you 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.

8. 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 an hour. WhatsApp has recently added this ability as well. Here’s how to use it.

Inside a chat or a group chat, tap the attachment button, then Location, then choose Share live location. Next, select a time period—15 minutes, 1 hour, or 8 hours—during which the recipients will be able to spy on your position. (To preserve your privacy, you probably don’t want to give them permanent access to your live location.) Now, anyone 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

9. Save your messages in Snapchat

Most people think of Snapchat as a photo-sharing app, not a tool for IMing. 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). Once it turns bold, it will permanently stay in the conversation window.

10. 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.)

To communicate privately, tap the instant message button on the top right and then hit the plus icon. Next, pick 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. You can then write out 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 an icon like a paper airplane. This is the instant message button, which you can tap to send a photo to your contacts.

David Nield

David Nieldis a tech journalist from the UK who has been writing about gadgets and apps since way before the iPhone and Twitter were invented. When he's not busy doing that, he usually takes breaks from all things tech with long walks in the countryside.