Getting a big group together this time of year can be a hassle. So spare everyone the endless phone notifications and email threads and try these methods instead.
With the holiday season upon us, our phones will soon explode with messages and calls from friends and family hoping to catch up and make plans.
As heartwarming as that sounds, the simple task of coordinating a group feels acutely painful this time of year, especially when people with widely varying levels of digital literacy all rely on the same tech to congregate.
Everyone is familiar with the endless email threads scattered with replies from people saying when they are available, where they would like to meet and what they would like to do — with no one seeming to agree on anything. Same goes for the big group text message and that one relative who floods our phones with multiple consecutive texts to convey a single thought. (You know who you are.)
And here we thought technology was supposed to make our lives more efficient.
Fret not. I share your pain and so tested various tools to help people get together and stay connected this holiday. Here were the best ones.
For Making Plans
Let’s start with the most frustrating situation: getting a big group of people to agree on when and where to meet. There are plenty of approaches, like sharing calendars or sending lots of emails, but the simplest solution I’ve found is creating a poll.
DoodlePoll, or doodle.com, is a free web tool made just for this purpose. First, you create a poll and give it a title, like “Watch the Fantastic Beasts movie.” In the following steps, you can select multiple potential times and dates, such as 7 p.m. on Dec. 23, 3 p.m. on Dec. 25 and 4 p.m. on Dec. 26.
After you make your selections, you punch in your name and get a web link that people can click on to view the options, cast their votes and type in their name. From there, you can choose the time slot that got the most votes, close the poll and then communicate the plan to the group. I’ve used this tool for groups big and small, and it spares me dozens of notifications and messages before meeting up.
For a Group Chat
When it comes to staying in touch or catching up over the holidays, using a group text message is fine if everyone is using an iPhone. That’s because Apple’s default texting service, iMessage, gives you the option to leave the conversation when it becomes too distracting.
But if there are Android users among the group, the chat bubbles turn from blue to green, meaning that the messages are being sent as traditional text messages. Unfortunately, with traditional texting you can’t exit a group chat, and the only option is to turn off alerts for the entire conversation.
It’s a better idea to start a group conversation with a messaging app that works for both Apple and Android devices. WhatsApp, Signal and Facebook Messenger are all good options: Each offers the ability to leave a group conversation. My favorite is WhatsApp because it tends to be the app that most people already have installed; it also lets you share your location to make it easier for people to find you.
Some families or friends will want some face-to-face interaction from afar. The popular tools are video-chatting apps like Apple’s FaceTime for iPhone users or Google Hangouts for Android or iPhone. Hangouts has supported group video chats for years, and FaceTime added the option just last month to make a group call with up to 32 people.
For Sharing Photos
Then there’s the annual exchange of photos during the holidays. You could just send a dozen photos of your trip to Europe or your newborn in a group text message, but that would burn through everyone’s cellular data plans and make you unpopular.
There are better solutions (as I detailed in a guide last year). Google Photos is an excellent app for both Android devices and iPhones. Whenever you take a photo, Google Photos backs it up in the cloud, which makes it easier to share with others who have Google accounts. It also has neat tools to automatically organize photos into albums — for example, the app can use location data to create an album for your vacation in Spain.
For families that exclusively use iPhones, AirDrop is a good option to share photos among devices easily. When you are next to a relative, you can select a photo or a group of photos on your iPhone and tap the Share button (a box with an arrow pointing up). Your relative’s device will show up under the AirDrop menu, and you can select the device. The files will move over instantly — even a batch of 50 photos will take less than a minute.
These methods aren't completely hassle-free, of course. Some of them require goading less tech-savvy friends and relatives into trying new tools. But once they are persuaded, your holiday gatherings will be less vexing to create, organize and reminisce about for years to come.