This weekend a friend visiting from overseas told me about all the different ways she and her various social circles use WhatsApp, and how it has become the only way many circles communicate. She also tried to persuade me to install it but my interest was more in how this one messaging app managed to replace so many other forms of communication and become not just the preferred mode of communication but the only one. Since WhatsApp isn’t as popular here in the US as overseas, it was interesting to see the different use scenarios it has replaced.
WhatsApp started off by offering person-to-person messaging and texting and took off in countries that still charged for individual texts. It is ad-free, is free to use the first year, and charges $1 (OK, only $0.99) per year after that. Compared to high per-text fees that still exist in some countries, WhatsApp was/is a bargain. It became a force, though, when it went beyond being a texting and messaging alternative and replaced email, mailing lists, and the various Group products (Google, Facebook, etc.)
But why? I asked my friend, the representative user, why she uses it (my experience would be much more limited as many of the examples she gave are still using email as a main form of communication in the US.) She explained:
- It’s very easy to set up groups on WhatsApp and keep them up to date. It’s so easy to set up a group that users set them for even the shortest periods such as a sleepover party, longer periods such as an upcoming trip, a year-long classroom and after-school activity parent list, or even a “forever” group such as different groupings of friends and family.
- Messages within the group are always visible, there is no filtering algorithm, though users can prioritize groups and people.
- Messages are short, sometimes in 2-3 words, making it easy to join the conversation in some way. Group members feel compelled to “say something” and as a result, there’s always something new to see.
And two of my observations:
- Exporting info from the app is hard. Once a picture is received via the app, it’s tedious to export it to another app such as email, encouraging exclusive, in-app communication.
- Extremely viral adoption, with existing users doing their utmost to get their non-WhatsApp pals on the service because it makes their lives so much easier. In my friend’s social circles, everyone is on WhatsApp. Everyone. No one asks if you have it, they assume that you do.
WhatsApp has become a messaging hub, one place where users can get all their messages and updates. It has also become the ultimate distraction, the leader in FOMO apps, with constant updates from different people and groups, all the time. These are all people that you know personally, sharing relevant, topical information. The same contact could share something in the “Class of 2017” group, something different in the “Soccer Team” group and something more personal the “Close Friends” group. Each message is relevant for its audience, whatever that audience might be.
Will I be using it? It depends on two things: how much of my communication I can “consolidate” in the app and, somewhat conversely, how much of a distraction it will become. If I can balance the two, I just might try it and make my friend happy.