Mapping (Secure) Messaging App Ecologies

Team members

Anne Helmond, Fernando van der Vlist, Esther Weltevrede, Adhitya Randy, Carlo de Gaetano, Alexander Ossevoort

Initial project pitch (abstract)

In this project we will explore the use of digital methods for understanding and mapping (secure) messaging apps and their support ecologies. Our main objective is to understand a particular genre of apps, i.e. secure or encrypted messaging apps, and develop novel methods for studying the ecologies around them. Building on work originating from previous summer and winter schools (e.g. ‘ Digital Methods for App Analysis’), we draw on medium-specific methods to explore these app ecologies by repurposing app stores and map recommendations as well as other information about these apps.

The mobile messaging apps market has grown enormously during the recent years, particularly after Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp. However, characterising the increasing popularity of apps simply by looking at the top messaging apps – Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, LINE, Viber, WeChat, and a handful of others – is to ignore the diversification that has also been prominent within the larger messaging app ecologies that have formed around them. For example, secure (encrypted) messaging apps such as Telegram, Signal, have become known (esp. post-Snowden) precisely because they cater to specific (niche) audiences. These apps tend to explicitly position themselves in particular ways and as viable alternatives to these top apps while addressing issues related to security and privacy (e.g. end-to-end encryption). We are therefore interested in mapping the (secure) messaging app ecologies and their development over time in order to better understand how this space has evolved and how the development of these apps might be related to external events such as the NSA revelations in June 2013. As such, we are interested in how messaging apps position themselves within the messaging space. At the same time we also investigate indirectly the wider political context within which such apps arise and thrive.

Main goals

  • Mapping the (secure) messaging apps ecology (and its development over time) by using digital methods, e.g. using descriptions, comments, reviews, and other public-facing information available from app stores (Google Play Store, App Store).
  • Understanding diversification in the (secure) messaging app space by distinguishing different types of secure and non-secure messaging apps, encryption methods, security protocols, and other technical specifications.


  • Building a list of (secu re) messaging apps using App Annie or using existing expert lists.
  • Mapping the (secure) messaging app ecology: making maps, tracing features, and creating timelines.
  • DMI tool for mapping app ecologies based on app recommendations: Google Play Similar Apps tool
  • Investigating the positioning of these apps within the ecology (e.g. as secure alternatives to top apps owned by large corporations)
  • Investigating the support app networks that have formed around (secure) messaging apps (e.g. stickers and encryption packages)

Presentation slides
Topic revision: r1 - 08 Jul 2016, FernandoVanDerVlist
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