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Some messenger called ‘TamTam’ is trying to replace Telegram in Russia. What the heck is it?

Meduza
Meduza

The Russian authorities ordered Internet providers to start blocking the instant messenger Telegram on April 16. A few days earlier, advertisements for another chat app started appearing on several Telegram channels (and even in a few newspapers). The service is being promoted as a “complete copy of Telegram” and “another messenger with channels,” implying that this is the app that should replace Telegram in Russia.

What on Earth is TamTam?

Mail.ru Group (which owns Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, and ICQ) launched TamTam in May 2017 based on the software architecture of an existing messenger called “OK Messages.” The developers say TamTam “has channels that can be opened by ordinary users, as well as brands, media outlets, bloggers, and other authors.” The service emerged just as Russia’s federal censor, Roskomnadzor, forced Telegram to register as an “information distribution organizer,” which paved the way for the Federal Security Service to demand that Telegram surrender the encryption keys for all user correspondence. (The company's refusal to comply, in turn, is what led to the authorities's decision to block Telegram.)

TamTam is modeled so closely on Telegram that even its shortened hyperlinks differ by just a single character: “tt.me” instead of Telegram’s “t.me.” In October 2017, TamTam launched voice and video calls, as well as a Web version.

TamTam started an ad campaign just as Russia decided to block Telegram

On April 13, the same day a Moscow court granted Roskomnadzor the right to block Telegram, TamTam bought full-page ads in the print newspapers Vedomosti, Kommersant, and Delovoi Peterburg,

Kommersant’s channel on TamTam is an exact copy of what the newspaper publishes on Telegram. Content from Vedomosti’s TamTam account differs only slightly from the newspaper’s accounts on other social networks. Both channels were created exactly one day before TamTam’s ads ran in each paper. Several other copies of popular Telegram channels (including three Telegram channels operated by Meduza) have also appeared on TamTam. Meduza did not create these channels and only discovered them recently.

In early April, TamTam started buying advertising on various Telegram channels. On April 8, one of Russia’s most popular Telegram channels, Dvach, invited readers to try out a new messenger: “It also has channels, so you don’t have to learn anything new.” The post was tagged as a promotion, and it disappeared before long. The tabloid news Telegram channel Mash also advertised TamTam, promoting it as a “full copy of Telegram.” Even the channel for Ilya Varlamov, a photoblogger who has vehemently supported Telegram against Russian censorship, ran an ad for TamTam (marked as a paid promotion).

A day before Russia started blocking Telegram, TamTam introduced the ability to create anonymous accounts that do not require a linked mobile phone number (which is how Telegram accounts are registered), letting users sign up with existing accounts on Google or Odnoklassniki.

So far, Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee and the St. Petersburg Court System’s press office has migrated to TamTam. The Foreign Affairs Ministry, meanwhile, has started sharing updates on Viber.

The size of TamTam’s user base remains a mystery

According to Mail.ru Group’s website, TamTam reached a combined 3 million installations on iOS and Android devices in September 2017, but the company hasn’t revealed monthly usage statistics. TamTam does claim, however, that its number of new users rose “tenfold” after Russia started blocking Telegram. For comparison: Telegram said in February 2018 that it had 15 million users in Russia (10 million of whom opened the app at least once a day) — behind only WhatsApp and Viber with 25 million and 21 million users in Russia, respectively.

Mail.ru Group claims that TamTam is also popular in Iran, without publishing any specific data about the size of its user base there. On April 7, however, the Iranian authorities blocked TamTam. Mail.ru Group has not said why it was blocked, but several TamTam channels were reportedly traced to ISIS.

Story by Mikhail Zelensky, translation by Lilit Mesyan