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How to use IOS / MMS Group Messaging effectively
July 16, 2013 2:07 PM   Subscribe

IOS (and maybe MMS in general?) group messaging seems broken from a conceptual standpoint, and I want to understand: 1. How is it supposed to work 2. Why doesn't it work this way 3. How cell phone users can petition the responsible parties to fix it.

Group messaging (Texting/IOS messaging many people and allowing reply-all) could be an incredibly useful feature, but it lacks the information/control to really achieve this, and is instead just incredibly annoying.

I own an iPhone 5. I have turned off Group Messaging because it annoys nearly all my friends without iPhones.
I have seen Apple's FAQ here: http://support.apple.com/kb/HT5760, but it really doesn't answer many questions.

The way I understand it, group messaging is controlled by the conversation starter. If that person's phone has group messaging on, any replies to that conversation get sent to everyone else in the conversation. However, nobody on the conversation knows if it is a group message, and (at least how my friends use it) this leads to a lot of message spam. Often, even days after a conversation, if you are not careful about creating a new conversation (instead of replying), the message still goes to everyone. While it hasn't happened to me, I can imagine a lot of accidental embarrasment/conflict coming from this type of system.

Specific Questions:
1. How is group texting actually implemented? Does one phone act as a master and relay the conversations around? Or does apple/the carrier implement this somehow?

2. How can I tell if I am on a group message? I have turned off group messaging on my phone, and that seems to change how the indicators work.

3. Are there any initiative or technologies that are trying to fix this? Is there any way to get the carriers and phone manufacturers to fix this system? (Aside from other 3rd-party messaging apps, I guess)

Improvements I can think of quickly:
Make sure phones have an indicator for if this message is a group message or not
Make it clear when composing a message if it will be sent to multiple people.
Implement a system for knowing who is on a conversation.
Implement a system for leaving a conversation.
Enable phone-level features like "Never reply-all"
Enable conversation-level switching between group messaging and normal(old-style?) broadcast messaging
posted by stobor to Technology (8 answers total)
 
I mean, I know you say "aside from other 3rd party messaging apps", but Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger both handle this extremely well. Facebook Messenger is my go-to favorite because my friends are typically all on Facebook, it shows read status, allows you to share location if you want, and notifications work on the web and on the devices.

The problem is that group messaging isn't handled well by many clients. Most phones simply send the same SMS to multiple people, which doesn't include a list of people to implicitly reply to when you reply to that. Now, with MMS, that can be handled, and for instance, a group message to my phone shows me as one of a list of recipients, and so I know I'm replying to the message sender and everyone they sent to. I also saw the replies that were going back to the sender, even though I'm not on iOS. So I suppose the system worked there.

But it's not foolproof. It's simply the best they can string together with the variety of devices out there. Nearly all devices support MMS, but even still, people may not realize that they're sending a copied message to multiple recipients vs. a "true" group message.

Never reply all would break the whole concept of a group message. Message the person directly if that's what you want. My phone lets me edit the recipients. Apple is trying to take the thought out of it for you and make it just a new group that just works. You can't even remove yourself from the group, which is crazy.

For groups you use frequently, I'd strongly consider Google Hangouts or Facebook Messenger. They handle all of the problems you describe really well and they're nice to use.
posted by disillusioned at 2:22 PM on July 16, 2013


Group messaging with MMS is part of the standard, so it's not controlled by Apple, it's just implemented by them.

I believe (though I could be wrong) that group messaging is basically set up as a non-optional reply-all thread. If your device supports group messaging and you reply to one, you are automatically replying to all. There's no master-device thing going on. To reply to just the sender, you'd have to send an individual message to just that person.

Not sure how to tell for certain that you're on a group MMS - I have an Android phone, which just implemented group MMS in the native messaging client in 4.2. I have the opposite problem as you - I can see every participant in the group message at the top of the message screen, so that part is obvious, but it's not always clear which of them actually sent each message in the thread.

For older phones or non-smartphones that don't support group messaging, the message comes in as MMS even though it's text-only, but replying to it will usually just send an individual SMS back to the sender. So those people will get inundated with text-only MMS messages but no ability to reply-all to the group since their phone doesn't support it.

As for initiatives or technologies to fix or improve it - I'm not aware of any initiatives to change or update the MMS standards. But there are many group messaging platforms that have many of the features you are looking for and that are also more reliable (and in some cases OS-agnostic to boot). Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, and I think Apple wants to take iMessage in that direction too (not sure if you can send and receive iMessages on a Mac yet, but if not, they will eventually include this, I'm sure).

As for improving the existing group MMS features - your list of improvements could all be relatively easy to implement on the software side while still adhering to the existing MMS standard - but that means waiting on Apple, Google, and other OEMs to make changes to their messaging apps. I suppose if you feel strongly enough you could start a campaign and get people to sign petitions and such - but I doubt it would get you very far, since the overwhelming trend is toward cloud platforms and away from carrier-dependent systems.

On preview, agree with disillusioned - Hangouts is great and absolutely does everything you are looking for, plus you can message from your PC, and if you have multiple devices the notifications get synced as well so you don't come back to your PC after your lunch break and see 20 old notifications that you already replied to on your phone!
posted by trivia genius at 2:31 PM on July 16, 2013


I've come to realize that group messages aren't really what texting is for. I only send a "group" text to a small group of people at a time, and it's usually not something I expect a reply to (or if I do, I expect a response useful to everyone like "We'll be there at 8" or "The reservations are under Tim.")

I don't think the problem is that there should be a better way to do group texts, I think the problem is that my damn mother needs to stop sending group texts to her entire damn address book that say "Happy Fourth Of July! What are you up to today?"
posted by Sara C. at 2:32 PM on July 16, 2013


2. How can I tell if I am on a group message? I have turned off group messaging on my phone, and that seems to change how the indicators work.

I have an iphone 5, with group messaging on. When I look at the "front page" of the Message screen - where all the texts you send/receive show up - I can see which ones are between me and more than one other person because an icon of two people (well, two heads) shows up. Texts between me and only one other person don't show the heads.

I send and receive group texts to/from people with iphones, blackberries, and various flavors of Android, and they all seem to work okay.
posted by rtha at 2:46 PM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yep, I'm pretty sure the answer is to use one of the many available protocols that are better geared for this - I've had tons of annoyance with group SMS over the years, and iMessage MIGHT help if it were reliable/available everywhere. But it's not, and it falls back to SMS, which as we've already discovered, is gross for group messaging.
posted by destructive cactus at 2:47 PM on July 16, 2013


Make sure phones have an indicator for if this message is a group message or not
Make it clear when composing a message if it will be sent to multiple people.
Implement a system for knowing who is on a conversation.


These are all kind of related, and as far as I can tell they are implemented on iOS already. Looking in Messages at the list of text conversations it shows the following:

FirstName LastName 11:52AM
"text of most recent message" >

[icon of two silhouetted heads] FirstName LastName, Another Person... 11:46 AM
"text of most recent message" >

etc...

So in the list of conversations it indicates single vs. group messages by both the list of names and also the presence or absence of an icon. When you're actually in a conversation it also indicates the distinction. In a regular conversation the top bar says "FirstName LastName". In a group conversation it says "Group MMS" and there's a secondary bar that says "To: FirstName LastName, Another Person & 1 more... Details"

Implement a system for leaving a conversation.

Tap "Details", which will open up a list of people in the conversation, then tap the name you want to have a single-person conversation with, then tap "Send Message."

If you mean "opt out of future messages in this conversation"...yeah, that's not possible.
posted by jedicus at 2:49 PM on July 16, 2013


ok, this is about what I was expecting, but figured I'd ask anyway. Most people I know use group messaging like Sara C describes, but explaining why and how to turn of group messaging is not really how I want to spend time with friends and acquaintances. Plus, they like it for some messages and not for others, and the setting doesn't apply per conversation...

My main aversion to other apps comes from not being able to force everyone else to use the one I use, and not always having reliable data coverage. Also, not everyone has smart phones yet.
posted by stobor at 6:38 AM on July 17, 2013


Maybe I'm wrong, but I think your understanding of this part is flawed. At least I have experienced it differently:

"The way I understand it, group messaging is controlled by the conversation starter. If that person's phone has group messaging on, any replies to that conversation get sent to everyone else in the conversation. "

Each individual's group messaging settings control who gets their replies. The conversation starter's settings have nothing to do with it.

I have group messaging off on my phone, but I continually get unsolicited replies from co-recipients when someone else sends a group message.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 9:18 AM on July 17, 2013


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