In this day and age, it may seem odd to include a whole page on chat applications. A bunch of free apps have sprung up over the years, on top of the “standard” text function you already have on your phone. The two we want to look at more closely are Signal and WhatsApp. Especially the latter lends itself to channel-based communication as you can easily form groups. (At the time of this writing, there were issues with Line’s encryption protocol).

A big bonus is: both are free, and they are end-to-end encrypted. It is a great way to have a secure conversation.

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secure chat whatsapp signal

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1. Signal

signal logoSignal is an unassuming-looking chat app, and part of an Open Source platform. That doesn’t mean your data will be less safe; rather, it means that there is a whole community of programmers and developers working on making it better. It can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store. Signal also has a desk-top client. Once installed, it will hook into your phone’s contacts and look for those who also have the app. These names are then displayed in your contact list within Signal.

signal chat window phone

Signal lets you place phone calls to anybody who also has the app. These are free, all you need is a stable Internet connection. What Signal’s desktop version does not do is to synchronize any chats from your phone to your desktop, something which WhatsApp does (see there for more).

Definitely a cool feature for this app are “Disappearing Messages”. If you bring up a contact, either by tapping on the name when you are in a chat, or by opening a new chat in the desktop app and then clicking once on the gear icon in the top right.

signal disappearing message

The only way to start a group chat is in the phone app by tapping on the group chat icon in the top right.

signal group chat

A new dialog box opens, and here you are able to name the group and add participants to it.

signal group chat

Pros: Signal is a stable, free, end-to-end encrypted chat app that is fairly simple to use. More details here.

Cons: No full synchronization with the desktop app. Starting group chats is not very straightforward.
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2. WhatsApp

WhatsApp has more or less the same functionality, just with a nicer UI. As with Signal, you can download a desktop version of it by simply scanning a QR code with your phone.

whatsapp desktop

Once you have set it up on your phone, as with Signal, people in your contacts who use the app automatically appear.

Both the phone and desktop versions are fairly straightforward to use, however, the phone app is obviously made for mobile and therefore appears as such. The list of chats you see below on the left is a separate tab in the phone app, and you have to tap on one in order to view it.

whatsapp desktop

In the mobile version, some of the controls can be found at the top and the bottom of your phone screen:

whatsapp interface

In WhatsApp, it is much easier to create a new group chat, and most items are where you would expect them.

whatsapp interface

As can be seen in the screenshot depicting the desktop app, it is also really simple to add files to a conversation.

Pros: WhatsApp is a stable, free, end-to-end encrypted chat app that is fairly simple to use. Conversations are fully synchronized between the phone and desktop apps.

Cons: The navigation, especially on the phone app, could be made a little more straightforward to navigate. Some things are buried, and while overall WhatsApp is pretty intuitive, there is room for improvement.

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WE RECOMMEND: Use WhatsApp as a Team

WhatsApp is our “app of choice” if you want to ditch the mass emails between you and your team, but you can’t afford the “Pro” versions of some of the online collaboration tools, such as Slack.

Before you get started, jot down a couple of topics, projects or ongoing conversations/meetings. This can look like a simple list:

  • Ongoing: volunteer management, donor management, website etc.
  • Topics: Trends in urban gardening, preserving etc.
  • Weekly meetings: status updates etc.
  • Project planning: X-Street garden grand opening etc.

It is pretty obvious that some of these  will be a little longer lived that others. You may also decide to use a full project-planning tool either in conjunction with this or instead of it, at least as far as the “project planning” aspects are concerned. All of the bullet points you write down will become names of group chats.

The following steps need to be completed for everybody in your team:

  1. Be sure you have all of your contacts pertaining to your team neatly organized on your phone. You will need at least first/last names and their cellphone number.
  2. If you haven’t already, download the app on your phone. It will walk you through setup upon first opening it. Only install the desktop client once your mobile app is completely set up.
  3. It may take a little bit for WhatsApp to import your contacts (provided that you allowed it to access this). Once your contacts have been imported, you can start building your group chats.
    1. Tap on the chat icon in the top right OR “new group”. whatsapp interface
    2. You will be taken to a screen titled “Add Participants”. Any group can have up to 256. Simply either search for the person’s name here, or scroll down and mark them one by one as you go.
    3. Anybody who creates a group automatically becomes that group’s administrator. This means only you can add or remove people or delete the group.
    4. A broadcast list can be set up the same way; however, these should be understood to be one-way streets of communication. You send, they read; that is, you can message multiple people at once without it turning into a group conversation. Of note: only people who have you in their address book with your WhatsApp phone number will receive any broadcast messages.
    5. Once a group has been created, you can start communicating. Our tip: please stick with the content of the group topic in order for this to work. If somebody wants to banter with someone else in the team, they can start a 101 chat between themselves.
    6. Group administration is pretty easy: if you tap on the name of the group, you get “Group Info”. Here you can add a group picture/logo, set group settings, add/remove participants and more. This is also where you leave the group, and tapping on any participant in the group gives you more options, besides removing them. Most notably, you can make somebody else an Admin here.

Once everybody has been setup for WhatsApp, you will find that it is much easier to keep track of things this way, than to dig through a mountain of emails. Since you have this on your phone AND your computer, nothing is lost, and you can share files and more in a secure way.

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How to build a WhatsApp Network
How to build a WhatsApp Network