Meow Chat: New app combines Tinder and WhatsApp - but is it safe?

Android and iOS app lets you chat with strangers near your location or join chaotic chat rooms

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 MeowChat.

The app itself has actually been around for at least a year, but is gaining popularity fast with its combination of WhatsApp-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, MeowChat 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 iOS 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).

MeowChat: Set up group chats with or one-on-one conversations with strangers.

From there users just hit the cat icon to enter a chatroom or one-on-one conversation with a stranger. At this point though in The Independent's experience the app went from 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 MeowChat has ‘gamified’ attention on the app, offering users a MeowChat score that doles out points when their pictures get ‘favourited’ or when they invite all their Facebook friends to install MeowChat.

This last mechanism is probably why the app has gotten so popular so suddenly, with users spamming each other to earn ‘Meow Points’. It's not the first app to strong-arm users into posting what is essentially free advertising, but it does seems a particularly coercive example.

All in all, it's easy to see what MeowChat has become so popular so quickly, but it seems like the app is not completely harmless - especially for younger users. MeowChat 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. MeowChat 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. There's enough of that on the internet as it is.

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