If you’re going to while away the hours on social media, you might as well be as efficient as possible at it. Beyond the basic apps and websites for your social network of choice, you can find plenty of free software to help keep you connected.
Frequent users of Facebook chat should give Messenger for Windows a try. This desktop application lets you chat with multiple friends in a single window, and it notifies you of new messages, comments, and photo tags. You can even set the app to appear as a permanent sidebar on your desktop, running alongside whatever else you’re doing.
To take your Facebook addiction to the next level, check out Facebook Home, the new launcher for Android that shows status updates and photos directly on your lock screen. Home also includes a useful feature called Chat Heads, which shows incoming texts and other messages on top of whatever app you’re in. Although Facebook Home is available for only a handful of Android phones right now, some clever developers have already created a workaroundfor other devices.
For people who don’t live and breathe social networking, Snapchat offers a more disposable take. The free app for Android and iPhone lets users send messages and photos that disappear after a set amount of time—perfect for sharing those odd moments that needn’t be preserved for posterity. (Facebook has a similar app called Poke, but it’s iPhone-only.)
If you’d rather do your messaging away from Facebook’s prying eyes, consider Viber, a free alternative to traditional text messaging and voice calls. It offers apps for Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry. Unlike Whats-App, its main rival, Viber doesn’t have a recurring $1 per year fee. (The company plans to introduce premium services in the future, but existing features will remain free.)
For video chat, Google+ Hangouts remains a cut above the competition. Unlike Skype, Google+ provides group video chat for free, and it also has some fun options such as the ability to watch a YouTube video together. Best of all, you needn’t be standing by to receive chat invitations: As long as your friends are still on the call, you can hop in at any time.
Got friends sprawled across several social networks and chat services? Imois your answer, as it supports chat on AIM, Facebook, Google+, Yahoo, and more, all in a single window. Imo has some noteworthy advanced features such as support for audio messages and file transfers, and optional logging of your chat history. Best of all, when you link multiple accounts together, signing into one through Imo signs you into all of them at once. You can link to Imo through its powerful Web app (available once you sign in on the site), or access it on your iPhone, iPad, or Android device via a mobile app.
Another great tool for multinetwork users is Hootsuite, a powerful app for keeping an eye on Facebook, FourSquare, LinkedIn, Twitter, and more, simultaneously. It’s a great option now that Twitter-owned TweetDeck is shutting down Facebook integration and killing its mobile apps. Hootsuite offers a Web app for desktop users (available once you sign in on the website), and mobile apps for Android and iOS.
Power users should also keep Buffer in mind for scheduling posts on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. Buffer lets you store up a bunch of updates, and then posts them throughout the day, using algorithms to determine the optimal times. It’s useful if you like to share lots of links but don’t want to overwhelm your followers with a dozen posts at once.
If photographs are your focus, consider ThisLife, a service that lets you combine photos from multiple social networks—including Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, and Twitter—along with photos from your desktop. With your image files safely stored, you can search through them all at once and make edits. ThisLife is free for the first 1000 photos.
When it’s time to sit back and relax, Stevie TV offers an interesting way to soak in updates from Facebook and Twitter. Available on the Web, Android, iOS, and Windows 8, Stevie TV gathers videos from your friends into a single “channel,” along with status updates and other tidbits. It also offers themed channels based on popular shared content, just in case your friends aren’t sharing much. Remote-control apps for Android and iPhone are available as well.
Finally, social butterflies can use About.me to create a central hub for all of their online profiles. About.me creates a simple online profile with a biography, contact information, and links to pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and elsewhere. Think of it as an supersized online business card—a static page where people can find out how to reach you in various ways.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.