SAN FRANCISCO — The day before the WhatsApp acquisition was announced, I was just using the app. It’s one of many mobile messaging platforms I use, along with Viber, Line, and WeChat. I used WhatsApp to chat with friends as far away and diverse as Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Western Europe, and with all the other short-messaging apps, I’m regularly chatting with a good chunk of the world.
While SnapChat and iMessage have taken off as popular one-to-one messaging platforms of preference in the United States, many more have arisen in other countries, and many more will certainly pop up.
But why now? One presentation that’s been making the rounds is Mary Meeker’s look at the rapid growth of the developing world as countries like China, India, the Philippines, and Turkey come online at rates 12 to 44 times faster than the United States. Further, smartphone uptake is growing rapidly, with 87% of connected devices projected to be smartphones and tablets. In other words, a lot of people are getting online, and they’re doing so with a lot of smartphones. With a simple interface and user experience, WhatsApp is better positioned for the short, one-to-one interactions that make texting so addictive and might make all the bells and whistles of other apps too distracting or cumbersome.
Okay, we know that many people are joining the web, but why are they doing it with smartphones? And what’s the draw of an app like WhatsApp? As a culture researcher and writer, I’m interested less in the stats — which are no doubt impressive — and more in the stories behind them. Apps like WhatsApp may not have picked up as quickly in the US, where most (but not all) of the country enjoys 3G internet access and low-cost SMS plans; in a media-heavy, communications-saturated environment, the incremental impact of a new messaging app is smaller. But simple short messaging apps mean a lot more for those who are just getting online — and doing so primarily via mobile phone. Consider research from Juliano Adrano Spyer from Brazil:
Among my working class informants, Whatsapp is more useful because it works better on their mobile phones, and the mobile phone tends to be more important for them than the PC. The PC usually belongs to the family so it has to be shared, while the mobile phone is something that is one person’s exclusive possession. It is not just that mobiles are more affordable and can be carried everywhere; they materialize a possibility of having private interactions in a social context that doesn’t allow this to happen very often. Even at home people are constantly being monitored by their neighbors. And the mobile enables stealth conversations among people.
Think also about diasporan families and communities — who need to be able to communicate with loved ones cheaply and quickly across international borders — or anyone who has to be mindful of an SMS plan that charges per message. Even though it costs $1 in the iOS store, WhatsApp cuts costs significantly for anyone who’s watching what they pay.
But it’s not like everyone is abandoning Facebook and other large social networks; both can co-exist, and they already do. Researcher Zeynep Tufekci noted this best:
An engagement or a new baby may well be best announced to a large group of weaker ties, whereas most day-to-day conversation is carried out with our smaller, primary social networks. (Yep, Facebook newsfeed versus WhatsApp.) This is not an either/or statement. Both types of conversations and interactions are primal, important, and central to human social interaction.
The point here is that as the world comes online, we’re remembering the value of small circles of communication. Just as much as broadcast matters, so do private conversations on private phones. For every type of social situation in the offline space, we need one for the online space. We as human beings are diverse creatures, and the platforms we use to communicate need diversity too.
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