Text messaging will look boring after you try this app backed by Betaworks and Dave Morin

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on December 17, 2013

From The News Desk

Have you ever had that problem when you're sending a Snapchat and trying to communicate factual information at the same time? Since the text box limits you, you wind up taking out the little scribble pen and painstakingly drawing the rest of the words that didn't fit. You curse your chubby 10-year-old fingers and accidentally delete the whole thing when adding a period over the invisible X button.

It's the limits of Snap-hacking: hacking a Snapchat into something it's not. The medium lends itself to ephemerality and visual creativity. Not texting. Because texting sometimes calls for visual creativity or silliness, even though the medium itself doesn't lend itself to that. You're only going to add a picture when it's important in some way. You're certainly not going to send a ridiculous selfie along with the text unless you're a 13-year-old.

In the land of messaging, there needs to be a middle ground. Something with the visual ease of a Snapchat service but the communication aspect of texting.

Enter: Context. You type your text first, with no limit aside from what can fit in your phone screen. Then you take a picture. The resulting Snapchat-esque shot sends to whoever you addressed it to. It's fast and easy. Too fast and easy to be honest. It sends without a send button, so the first few times you use it the picture you take will disappear into the ether without your express permission. Crotch shots and furrowed brow faces abound initially.

Once you realize that Context has removed all additional steps to messaging, making the process as streamlined as possible, the crotch shots and furrowed brows will make way for expressive selfies that showcase the emotion behind the message. Or, if you're me, hilarious puns.

photo (5)Get it?! Catext?! Because the app is called Context?! Har-dee-har. No really I'm cracking myself up over that one.

Even though Context doesn't have the traction of a Frontback or the monetization strategy of a WeTalk, founder Ben Cera just closed a seed funding round for an undisclosed amount, with investors like Thrive Capital, Betaworks, SV Angel, Dave Morin, and Tobias Peggs backing him up.

He can probably thank Snapchat for that. The company's frothy valuation and ridiculous acquisition offers have everyone itching to invest in messaging.

Context isn't the only new app that provides a visual-emotional context to information. Kevin Rose debuted his rather creepy proposal for a Context for blogging a few days ago. How does one give context to a blog? In Rose's imagination, with a fuzzed out video of the author penning the blog, which plays behind the the text. It looks like a scene out of "The Ring" or "Saw" movies.

Rose's thought is that by watching the blogger as they blog, you'll get a sense of their emotion from writing it. Are they slumped halfheartedly over the keyboard? Are they perky with their head held up? Are they giggling?

Of course, in reality bloggers don't express loads of body language while they're writing, so this might play out a little weird. For example, a fuzzy video of me writing this post would show me slack jawed, eyes staring ahead, occasionally making a little frowny expression with perhaps a bit of pixelated drool coming out my mouth. Hot. That's my bloggy face.

Fortunately Rose's idea is just that -- an idea. He doesn't have any plans to execute on it at the moment, he's just getting feedback.

On Twitter, people pointed out that Tiny bears a lot of similarities to Context. It's the same idea of a visual, emotional component to textual words. Linguistic anthropologists would have a field day. It also begs the question of whether there's something more to selfies than just narcissism. Perhaps selfies fulfill a fundamental human need, one of self-actualization, self-realization, identity formation, communication?

Let's not get carried away though. On to more practical business matters: Yet another photo sharing application can't possibly take off. We've entered the phase of unlimited imitation, where they can't all last…can they? People were predicting the decline of the sector after Instagram and Snapchat owned the market. But then along came Frontback, allowing users to snap shots of what they're looking at and pair it with a selfie. Frontback saw surprising traction, garnering 200,000 downloads in a month.

Context has an uphill battle getting people's attention in the noisy, competitive space, but perhaps it will find a Frontback level staying power. After all, part of the reason people love Frontbacks is because it gives them an excuse to take and share selfies without seeming like narcissistic twelve year olds. Their selfie gives context and emotion to whatever they're taking a picture of.

Context is exactly the same way, but applying the Frontback principle to private messaging, where it's even more suitable. Users have every excuse to take selfies since a) the app requires it, b) it gives more meaning to the textual information, and c) they're having personal conversations with people they know, so who cares anyways?

Frontback also meets messaging needs that an app like Snapchat fails to. As Snapchat becomes more and more ubiquitous, it has evolved into a group messaging platform more than a private messaging one. Yes, people do send private messages through it, but more and more they're likely to just mass message a bunch of their friends. After all, since the message disappears and doesn't have much room for text, it's not about actual communication. It's more about snapshots of experiences, and those can be sent to a wide swath of friends and family.

It demeans the excitement of receiving a Snapchat, knowing that the picture or video you're looking at was likely sent to a  bunch of other people, as well. It's not a private moment connecting you and that sender.

In contrast, with Context, it's all about the private connection. At the moment with Context, group messages can't be sent, the messages don't disappear, and there's unlimited room for text. All those elements turn the app into a more personal Snapchat, a silly, visual communication between you and one other person, elevating the text into something more significant and important than a Snapchat.

Regardless of whether Context can garner enough users to have staying power, there's another relevant concern: How the hell will it make money? It's a question people are asking more and more, what with Snapchat turning down billions in acquisition offers.

Hamish McKenzie has explored this issue thoroughly with regards to apps like WhatsApp, Kik, and WeChat. The takeaway is that some of these apps -- like Line and KakaoTalk -- are learning how to monetize through other means, turning chat into something much bigger with added games, sales transactions, and product promotions. Others, like WhatsApp, have not figured out any monetization strategy and are just riding their investor money into an inconclusive future.

Like WhatsApp, Context's monetization strategy is less clear. With money in the bank from the likes of Betaworks and Dave Morin though, he doesn't need to worry about that now.