Tag Archives: WhatsApp

What’s Up with WhatsApp?

27 Feb

The purchase of WhatsApp by Facebook has produced much comment. A lot has been said about the incredible amount of money paid; even more about might and power. It’s not what WhatssApp does (or might become) that has been noted, but how much money Facebook has to spend on it. Facebook has become, we are warned, a Beast on the Block, a mighty leviathan of Corporate Wealth and its purchase of this Start-up proof. Many ask whether the behaviour of such a corporation will negatively affect the world we live in: after all the enormous and beneficial impact of the Internet is precisely because it allows diversity and creativity; it creates new business possibilities. Is it boon from one of these possibilities that will now fund sterilisation of the Internet?

These concerns – legitimate and proper though they are – elide another question. WhatsApp is a communications technology, so one can understand why, say, Google wanted to buy it. It would extend the portfolio of a search engine enterprise. But surely Facebook has cornered the market for messaging, for being in touch in the age of social networking?

What is WhatsApp? It’s basically an instant messaging (IM) application: one logs on and posts text or an image, even a sound file, and this can be accessed by anyone else who logs on. It’s instant, too, so just as soon as one creates content so it can be seen. Only buddies or registered users can participate so it’s all safe and private. In some respects, however, WhatsApp is unlike traditional IM services. Content doesn’t disappear when you log out; it lingers there like Graffiti on a virtual wall. One’s mates can see it whenever they log on – it’s waiting for them to (as it were) to drop by. It runs on any smart phone, too, so though it looks a bit like Blackberry Messenger, it is not associated with any device or mobile network. But doesn’t Facebook offer all this? Can’t you download on to you smart phone an IM client and tell your buddies ‘what’s up’ through Facebook?

Yes and No – in technical terms you can do pretty much all this. The real distinction – and the thing that made WhatsApp so appealing to Facebook- is how WhatsApp is used. And this is in part consequent on the way Facebook use has itself has evolved over the years and in part on changes in the way friendship is managed through digital means. 

For many people, Facebook was one of the first social networking sites they experienced. This was where they first brought their friends together to show and share; this was where they familiarised themselves with the basic grammar of status updates, postings and Likes. Facebook was also the place where they came to discover that not only can you bring all your friends together, but you can exclude people. As I noted in my book, Texture,  teenagers soon discovered that one of the key values of Facebook was that they could exclude Mum and Dad. If bedroom doors could always be opened by nosey parents, but digital access rights could always be denied on Facebook.

But just as teenagers learnt this, so too did parents. Thus, today, as various anthropologists have discovered, parents insist on access to the family member’s accounts. And as these rights are gained, so teenagers have realised that they cannot abandon Facebook altogether. Something has to be there or else their parents would be suspicious.

The kinds of content one finds today on Facebook reflects this ebbing and flow. What is there can best be described as anodyne – posting and updates that articulate a public profile, tweaked with some intimacies, updates about a new job, say, or a major family event but little more. And it is not just parents and teenagers who negotiate thus to produce this content. Most content is essentially of this kind: an augmented digital Yellow Pages with a personal spin. It’s a personalised directory of people in the digital age.

So what of friendship? Doesn’t Facebook still support and enable it? Of course it does. But the form it does so is not sufficient to let friendship throb, and here comes the value of WhatsApp. When asked what they use WhatsApp for, many people will reply, with some embarrassment, that they can’t actually say. ‘Well, it’s for my friends. You know with your friends you don’t really need to say anything but we do sort of say something. I mean, it’s mostly tosh’. They might go further and say that, when using WhatsApp, they don’t have to formulate proper sentences either – they can simply say out loud (as it were) what they are thinking – since a friend will understand; they might well be thinking the same thing too. And they might add that they use WhatsApp pretty much all the time – their smart phones always being at hand, their friends always desirous of contact. By way of further explanation, they might explain why Facebook doesn’t do all they need. ‘I don’t need to put a status update. My friends know what I am up to – mostly they are doing it with me.’

This seems to be the measure of modern friendship. It is not that friendship has a different manner – friends have always spoken tosh with each other, they have always filled in each other’s phrases and doubtless too they have persistently pestered each other down the ages with words when they are not wanted. But with WhatsApp (and similar applications) they do this wherever they are: at work, at home, in bed, on the train; when they are bored, when they have something to laugh at and something to whinge over; in short, when they want to find out ‘what’s up?’

And this is why Facebook is so keen, why it thinks it justified to spend the money it has. It is here that they can get to the heart of being human in this day and age.

But it is far from clear that Facebook will be welcomed by users. It is not at all certain that the space between all the tosh can be filled up with adverts and click-thru’s; nor is it clear how much value can be placed on pointless chit-chat: how much will people be prepared to pay to say nothing at all?

Of course friendship is infinitely valuable. But friendship is like water: it will find a way through obstacles put in its path: the question for Facebook is whether it will be such an obstacle or a conduit. The evidence is that it was once a conduit and then became an obstacle: only time will tell if the same fate will befall WhatsApp.