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Many of us like to stay in touch with others in real time. For that purpose, we have a lot of tools that we can use. Some of them are safer than others. Let's look at some popular ones...

Twitter
is very popular and not private/secure in any way. Assume that anything you tweet is public.
IRC has been around for a long time. It's still used by many. It's not secure unless you use OTR (Off The Record).
Facebook Messenger... well, it's Facebook. Not secure in any way.
WhatsApp is encrypted, but the metadata is still logged, and says more than the actual conversations; also, it's owned by Facebook.
Google+, Google Hangouts, Gchat... it's Google. Avoid.
ICQ and Yahoo chat? Not secure.
Skype is popular for voice and video chat. But it's owned by Microsoft nowadays. The calls are encrypted, but there's that pesky metadata thing again. So it's not really secure.
SMS (text messages) are not secure at all.


So what are the better options?

Signal is well-known for being recommended by Snowden. It does voice chat as well as instant messaging. Can be used on smartphones and desktops.
Telegram is a cloud-based mobile and desktop messaging app with a focus on security and speed. It works on many platforms and also in your browser. I like this one.
Hoccer is a privacy-conscious messaging and file sharing app for smartphones.
Confide is a messaging app for smartphones and Windows and OSX computers; it's hyped to be very secure (messages cannot be kept). But it's closed source, so who knows, and some experts say it's not great.
Tox is another good option that works for messaging, voice and video chat. There are clients (= software) available for all platforms.
Ring serves a similar function. It also allows group chats (teleconferencing)
Linphone: same same.
And if you do not want to download or install anything or get an account, there is always Talky video chat which can simply be used on the web. Set up a 'room' by choosing a room name, send the other person the URL for your room, and you're off.


So which one do I use?

The one you can get your friends or family to use.


A note on the technical side of all of this


We need to distinguish between two things when talking about chat/messaging software: there's the software and there's the protocol.
Just like PDF documents can be opened with Adobe Reader, and many people assume that this is the only option... but in reality, there are lots of different programs that can open PDFs. Likewise, there are different programs that can handle different protocols, and even programs that can handle a whole lot of them!
For example, I use IRC, ICQ and Telegram, but I don't want three programs running on my laptop all the time. So I use multi-protocol messenger software, that can handle all three of these and more.

Some good multi-protocol programs are:
Pidgin (for Linux, Windows, OSX)
Miranda IM (for Windows)
Adium (for OSX)
These are mainly meant for laptops and desktop computers. On a smartphone, a dedicated app is generally the better option.

Some instant messaging protocols are:
ICQ, IRC, Gadugadu, AIM, AOL, XMPP, Bonjour, Telegram (has OTR feature built in).

If you want secure instant messaging on a protocol that's not inherently encrypted, look into adding an OTR plugin.

Further reading (and even more apps) in this article in the New York Times.


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