Discuss Together - What's Up with WhatsApp?


We talked about the use of WhatsApp, and especially the mass exodus over to Signal. I shared my story of Sam’s experience, and why she chose to use Google technology. Watch the video, read this or listen to the podcast.

This will available on Google Podcasts and Apple Podcasts, so download it and listen in your own time.

If you’d like to join a future Discuss Together, contact me on ravi@pungra.fit including details about the subject(s) you’d like to discuss and best time(s).

Video version

Sam started using WhatsApp in 2010

Here’s Sam again. Being communicative, organised and timely is important to Sam’s health, especially as she regularly checks in with important people in her life to see how they’re doing. She does this primarily through WhatsApp.

She stumbled across a bunch of articles in the news that suggest she shouldn’t use WhatsApp, or even Facebook for that matter, and that if she wanted her conversations to be secure, she should change to Signal or Telegram.

She already feels she’s using too many apps, and has installed many in the past that have become redundant to her.

Sam wants to understand encryption

She keeps hearing the term “end-to-end encryption” but didn’t really know what it means and why it’s a good thing.

Also she has other thoughts, such as, why did Facebook acquire WhatsApp for nearly 20 billion dollars, why is WhatsApp free and why are people like Elon Musk criticising the recently policy changes?

Something's not quite right. Especially as Sam made an observation. Her, and most of her family and friends have something in common. Most of their personal communication happens on WhatsApp. She thought, “isn’t it strange that we all have to buy a device, which is primarily for communication, but then have to install something on it, to communicate? Does that really make any sense? Are these mobiles devices then, not fit for purpose? Shouldn’t the essential things we need come pre-installed? And how is it that almost 2 billion people take part in this strange oddity, and don’t question it?”

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

After digging deeper, Sam related her investigation of how WhatsApp works with other tools and technologies. She couldn’t let go the question, “why is WhatsApp free?”. Of course she discovered, that it’s not. Nothing in this world is free. To understand truly what’s going on, Sam thought, “we have to follow the money trail”. 

From it’s launch in 2009, WhatsApp promised “we’ll never display adverts”. They used to charge a one-off fee, which many people were able to avoid paying and install anyway. By about 2014 they knew they needed to generate some money, so made the one-off fee necessary for all new users. Before this had the chance to settle, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for a hugely inflated fee. Facebook promised to “leave WhatsApp as it is”. It continued to grow in popularity, but something else happened too.

Facebook copied all the popular features of WhatsApp into it’s already established, but far less popular, alternative, called Messenger. But Facebook displays adverts on Messenger. Hmm… if I were Facebook’s CEO, why would I want WhatsApp to continue to operate? It’s costing a packet to run, and doesn’t generate any income for our company.

The true Face of Facebook

Sam always thought the idea of Facebook was a bit ‘dodgy’. I mean a bunch of university student boys, creating an online directory to check out people in their university, and then neighbouring universities, making it attractive for people to post their “face”. Does this feel like an ethical use of this type of technology?

Then in 2018 the Cambridge Analytica scandal rocked Sam to her core. She learnt that Facebook provided the personal information, including the conversations people were having to Cambridge Analytica. They used this information to create adverts for political campaigns, and it is highly like that this impacted on the US election in which Trump won, Brexit in which “leave” won, Indian elections in which Modi won and many others. This means that in 2018 the true potential of Facebook was finally revealed to the world. Use it, and your thoughts can be used against you to influence elections. Put another way, Facebook colluded with an agency to manipulate democracy. And what did they do next? They adjusted their terms and conditions to allow them to carry on doing this. And what did 80% of Facebook’s users do? They  just hit accept, and carried on.

In a US court Facebook’s CEO, after multiple times of being called in, promised, this time they will change.

Other players in the market

Sam looked at the others offering similar services to WhatsApp. Many are almost carbon copies. But there are others that misunderstood as being completely different, but thanks to recent changes, they have changed with many people not noticing, The example of this is Skype, which was acquired by Microsoft.

Sam thought Skype was a video call app, but after a play with the latest version, she learnt that Skype is almost identical to WhatsApp, including the end-to-end encryption. But Skype has two additional benefits, one is that it works better on laptops. The second is that Skype users can call standard telephone lines, for a little fee.

This came as a surprise to Sam because nearly 20 years ago, she was an avid user of Skype. She’d have preferred to stay with this app, if she knew it was going to be improved and caught up with WhatsApp. But in online articles about competitors to WhatsApp, Skype is hardly ever mentioned.

Sam looked at other apps that are compared such as Signal and Telegram, and wondered the same question that got WhatsApp into this situation, “how do these apps make money?” This is the biggest problem, because their financial model is not clear. 

At least with Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook, we can see their financial business model. They might not be trustable, but they’re easier to trust than completely free operators.

Is secure, really private?

The way Sam sees it, there are 3 types of people that she needs to communicate with regularly. She’s called them urgent, important and nice to connect. 

The urgent group are her closest circle. She interacts with them multiple times a day, mostly through text, but also audio and video call a few times a week. If they need to get a hold of her, Sam wants to know immediately. There’s less than 10 people in Sam’s urgent circle.

The important group are those that Sam interacts with maximum once a week. She doesn’t need them to get her attention immediately, but she wants to hear from them, and vice versa, wants to communicate with them occasionally too. This will include Sam’s coaching group. There are about 50 people in this circle.

Finally, there’s the nice to connect group. These are people who Sam doesn’t expect to communicate about urgent or important things. They are mix of old school students, previous work colleagues, potential clients or employers, and influencers.

Based on this group of three circles, Sam decided that the people who she wants to be able to connect urgent should use her mobile number. The others should use platforms like Email, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. That’s when she noticed the problem with WhatsApp, and others that require her mobile phone number.

The new social connections

Sam made another observation. Many of these services use language like ‘communicate with your contacts’ or ‘stay in touch with your friends’. This gives the impression that they are meant for connecting with people Sam already knows, in person.

Over the years, Sam has been using so many of these technologies that now more than 70% of her friends are people she didn’t know before, and many of those she hasn’t met in person. Many of them are friends or acquaintances… and they all have her mobile number.

Sam realised that she can’t both perpetually keep signing up for new apps that require her mobile number, and reserve her mobile number for only her urgent circle. There are all sorts of notification settings, and she can give certain people access to contact her during focus time, etc, but she doesn't want to get into that.

She decided to shift towards ensuring only her urgent circle have her mobile number, and then her important and nice to have can connect to her on services in which they aren’t automatically given access to her mobile number.

What’s the lesson?

It’s a complex area, especially because using these applications isn’t done in isolation. If Sam wants to use something different to WhatsApp, she has to convince her closest contacts to do the same. They then have the problem that they need to use at least two services, unless they want to convince their contacts to use the other app. The compounding effort of all this change means that trying to change communication technology services is a close to impossible task.

Sam decided that she is going to be ruthless with her change to stop using WhatsApp. If people want to text her, they can on her mobile number,

However, if they want to have a great conversation with her with an enhanced chat app, they will need to use a more robust, trustworthy and reliable service, such as those offered by the big players, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google.

Sam decided that because she uses YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps, and many other Google products, she will use Google’s text application, which comes already installed on her mobile… finally, the way things should be.

I hope you found my perspective interesting and useful enough to trigger some new actions.