It's true that we live in a golden age for flirting with strangers.
Just when you’re getting sick and tired of hearing about the likes of Tinder and Grindr a new app blows in, offering the same cruising-for-compliments excitement with an added dash of cartoon cats: meet Meow Chat.
The app itself has actually been around for at least a year, but is gaining popularity fast with its combination of Whats App-style messaging (you can send text, images or audio clips) and a Tinder-esque matching system that lets users jump into one-on-one or group chats with strangers near their location.
This mechanism means that despite its cartoon livery of ginger cats, Meow Chat combines some of more Wild West elements of socializing online – its chat rooms are chaotic, full of belligerent and friendly users in pretty much equal measure, and the one-on-one chats are as unpredictable as that stalwart of the genre: Chat Roulette.
The app itself is available for i OS and Android and asks users to create a miniature profile by either importing information from Facebook or just punching in a username, email address, password (and, of course, a profile picture)goofy to creepy pretty quickly, with the chatrooms full of abusive language and invitations from strangers to start "chatting in private" - an especially worrying feature given that the sign-up age is just 13 years old and requires no external verification (and users can always choose to hide their age).
The app also offers the chance to browse profiles in your area, and judging by the short bios some users have written (“no nudes plz”; “don’t message me if your [sic] 50”) this feature can be a magnet for creeps.
What’s worse is that Meow Chat has ‘gamified’ attention on the app, offering users a Meow Chat score that doles out points when their pictures get ‘favourited’ or when they invite all their Facebook friends to install Meow Chat.
This last mechanism is probably why the app has gotten so popular so suddenly, with users spamming each other to earn ‘Meow Points’.
All in all, it's easy to see what Meow Chat has become so popular so quickly, but it seems like the app is not completely harmless - especially for younger users.
Meow Chat does tell people to "never send or request inappropriate images" and users can choose to make their profiles private, but these seem relatively flimsy safeguards - especially for an app that's designed to spread virally through users' Facebook friend list.
As Snapchat has shown through its multiple hacking scandals, it's common for app makers to focus on wild growth to the detriment of users' security.
Meow Chat users might mostly be savvy teens, capable of telling the odd weirdo to shove off, but that doesn't mean the app shouldn't offer more security and better ways to weed out seedy come-ons. The Independent's bitcoin group on Facebook is the best place to follow the latest discussions and developments in cryptocurrency.
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