friends are mostly just people I met at parties. Most of my LinkedIn connections are strangers I thought made me look “professional,” and I follow hundreds of people on Twitter and Instagram whom I’ll never meet in real life.
But there’s really only one “friends list” that actually deserves the title: the contacts app on my phone.
My digital address book is the conduit to the most important information about the most important people in my life. And yet my contacts app is a mess—and I bet yours is too. As my colleague Joanna Stern wrote years ago, it takes a lot of work to keep everything straight.
Entering information is like filling out forms at the DMV, and I often end up with a dozen versions of the same person. Worse, we’ve moved well beyond phone numbers and email addresses, communicating with people using all kinds of apps and networks.
A new set of apps is starting to help, though. They use modern tech to make it easier to add and manage your contacts, share yours with others, and even use your contacts list as a jumping-off point for other communication needs.
Rather than make money by spamming your friends or sending you ads, these apps come with a simple cost—a few dollars, either one-time or every month. I’ve found that having an updated, accessible, useful place full of all the information I need about everyone I care about is well worth the cost.
Tending the Rolodex
Of all the contacts apps I’ve tested, CardHop has helped me most. Currently available for Mac and iOS, it’s able to automatically parse which contact info you’re trying to add and sort it correctly.
Like other apps I’ve tested, CardHop works directly with your regular address book. Once you give the app access to your contacts, anything you enter in CardHop is synced via the same Google or iCloud account you’re already using. That’s the beauty of these tools: They offer better ways to deal with your stuff without forcing you whole-hog into some new contacts universe.
Open CardHop, type “Brad Pitt 310-555-4206 firstname.lastname@example.org,” and the app files each piece of information into the right place. If you already have that person in your contact list, it’ll add the new information rather than create a duplicate entry.
My favorite use for CardHop is to paste in someone’s entire email signature, and let the app create a new contact or update an old one.
CardHop helps solve the problem of adding contacts, but keeping all my information up to date is a bigger problem.
Here’s how digital address books should work: I control my own contact card, with all the information about me on it. When I give you my card, I choose which fields to share with you. (Work people get my work number, friends get my birthday, potential doggie playdates get my dog’s Instagram username, you get the idea.)
From then on, anytime I update my own card, it would instantly update in your account as well. Anything I’ve shared with you would be always up to date. While a new standard like this won’t likely emerge anytime soon, one developer has a clever hack.
The HiHello app lets you manage and share your contact information as usual—typing manually or scanning business cards—but its concept of digital “cards” is what’s so interesting.
You can create different ones for friends or colleagues or potential playdates. The app generates a unique QR code that anyone can scan with their phone camera to add to their normal address book. You can also send a card via text or email.
If you share your contact info through the app with another HiHello user, though, you can update your phone number or email and they’ll see it in their address book, no matter which contacts app they use. HiHello handles all the updating invisibly in the background.
Once you have a teeming, up-to-date list of important information about important people in your life, it kind of becomes the center of your digital universe. Now, when I want to message someone, I open CardHop and search for their name.
As with other apps, I can tap on phone numbers to call people, but CardHop also lets me tap on saved Skype usernames to call them there, or on Instagram handles to jump straight to their profiles. (And don’t worry, you can still get to your updated contacts any way you prefer.)
If you think about your contacts list as your center of operations, the possibilities seem endless. In some universe, maybe my contacts app connects to my email and Facebook accounts, reminds me of the last time I chatted with someone, even crawls the internet looking for information to pad out and update my existing contacts. Best buddy list ever, right?
But somewhere along this road we run into a big problem, one that has increasingly become a non-starter for potential users of apps that gather a bunch of personal information to grow, reap ad revenue or just sell to the highest bidder. Some supposedly helpful apps import all of your contacts to their servers; I recommend staying away from them. You really shouldn’t even be syncing contacts with your social networks.
HiHello and CardHop have strong privacy policies and promise never to share your data with anyone. “We don’t gather information, we don’t want information, and we’re very cautious about having and managing your information,” said Michael Simmons, co-founder of Flexibits, the developer behind CardHop.
Share Your Thoughts
Do you have any tips for keeping all your contacts up to date? Join the conversation below.
Rather than make money through ads or data-mining, these companies get money right from you. CardHop costs $4 on iOS and $20 for Mac. HiHello plans to charge for features like business-card transcription and eventually to have a monthly fee for using the service.
This feels like a fair trade. I want my address book to work for me, not somebody else and all their advertising buddies. It shouldn’t be tied to any single social-media app or device. It should be easy to use and access, but still feel like it’s my property. After all, this is a social network of the people I care about most.