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What lies in store for WhatsApp?

Georgiana Murariu26 March 2021

Fig. 1. A smartphone displaying WhatsApp’s logo. Photo by AARN GIRI via Unsplash

Since I joined the ASSA project as a public dissemination officer in late 2019, I’ve spent a lot of time discussing WhatsApp with the researchers in the group. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this discussion was actually on WhatsApp. The messaging service is probably the main way you communicate with your parents, siblings, and friends too, that is unless you live in China or the US, where the messaging app is not yet dominant. More than a quarter of the world uses WhatsApp, in fact – a few months ago, the Economist reported that the app was used by nearly 3 billion people. This is likely to continue going up as a result of COVID-19 moving more communications online.

WhatsApp is a key component of the stories, theories, and analysis contained in the monographs that will come out of the ASSA project, simply because it has become absolutely essential to communication between family members and is sometimes the primary reason for buying a smartphone in the first place, especially among those who are first-time smartphone users.

It is, as the ‘Global Smartphone’ book suggests, the heart of the smartphone alongside LINE and WeChat which are the dominant apps used in Japan and China respectively.

In this post, I want to reflect on some of the things I have learned about the messaging service through the first-hand ethnographic evidence coming out of this project and discuss its future direction of travel a bit, especially in light of two recent developments: attempts to better monetise the app, and the perceptions that the privacy of its users is becoming compromised.

Monetising WhatsApp

A few months ago, our colleague Marilia Duque forwarded us an article in the NYT that suggested that changes being made to WhatsApp by its owner, the Facebook corporation, could be an important hint as to the direction the internet was going in.

WhatsApp was purchased by social media giant Facebook in 2014, two years after it completed its purchase of photo sharing app Instagram. Since Instagram has become Facebook-owned, it has, over the years, introduced pretty radical measures for extracting revenue out of the app. Inextricably tied to influencer culture, the app has also recently placed the ‘shops’ feature front and centre and is generally known for favouring beautifully-designed, professional looking accounts in its algorithm. WhatsApp, however, is a challenge for Facebook, because in and of itself, the app does not make a lot of money (its initial £0.69 annual cost was dropped in 2015). WhatsApp operates without ads, in contrast to platforms like Instagram and Facebook. In many of the markets it operates in, especially if we are talking about countries where many mobile phone users have cheap, constant access to data, it has all but rendered SMS services redundant.

As it stands, Facebook owns a gigantic messaging service that a large part of the world’s population uses, which gives it a lot of potential power. However, it also owns a service that it can’t technically monetise in the classical sense. The goal was initially to have Whatsapp users communicate with banks, airlines and other businesses, and for WhatsApp to charge these businesses a certain fee to provide customer service infrastructure for them.

There have been attempts, here and there, to extract more revenue out of the app, including ‘WhatsApp Business’, a version that helps businesses interact with customers via chat, like in the example below, from the WhatsApp website. Although this feature is used in Brazil and India, it is not exactly globally successful (even if Brazil and India are big markets), and certainly not how the majority of customers would think to communicate with a business they’re buying from.

Fig 2. An example of how WhatsApp Business works. Photo credit: WhatsApp website.

This does not mean that the concept would not work if scaled up, or that users would reject it – indeed, the ASSA project found that in many fieldsites, WhatsApp use went well beyond communication with family and friends, and was used in very diverse settings, from setting up care for a relative, to helping oncology nurses in Chile orient patients and give them the information they needed to cope with the complexity of navigating oncology treatment.

Marília Duque, our researcher who did 16 months of fieldwork São Paulo, Brazil, has written about the potential of the messaging app to be used in healthcare settings – both between healthcare professionals, and healthcare professionals and patients. What she proposes is a response to the reality that in many countries, doctors already use WhatsApp in hospital and clinical settings, though not always openly. This has been happening in the UK for a number of years – WhatsApp is seen as a seamless way to get information across, eliminating the need to communicate through what are sometimes seen as ‘archaic’ NHS systems, though for now, this question is still surrounded by data-sharing concerns, especially because it involves patient data.

When it comes to businesses featuring on the platform in a more professional capacity, many are likely going to be treading carefully (although again, this varies country by country). The reason for this is that WhatsApp is already a large number of users’ people’s preferred app because there are no ads on it and for some, because it is end-to-end encrypted (though I am not suggesting everyone cares about this) and therefore its message contents fairly private. Being in this intimate space and meeting the user ‘where they are’ in an era in which people are increasingly less likely to visit a company website is desirable for many organisations/businesses, but it has to be well-calibrated to users’ preferences, and there is good reason to believe many WhatsApp users are resistant to advertising. While one might prefer to resolve an internet issue with a customer service agent over WhatsApp, certain commercial services might not be as ‘wanted’ in the same space where one shares news and details about their life with their family and friends.

Meeting users where they are and privacy concerns

There is another factor that influences people being on WhatsApp – at a certain point, it is no longer solely about the app’s features or how intuitive its user interface is, but about the momentum of mass adoption. In business terms, an sms-style app has the potential to make money through exponential growth: one person vouches for the app so the rest of the members of the group download it to keep in touch with that person. This then keeps happening until the app becomes indispensable to its base of users. In more ethnographic terms, the ASSA team often found that some research participants were more or less forced to get the app – whether due to family pressure, or because everyone else was using it, or because their friends simply wouldn’t invite them to things as often if they weren’t on WhatsApp. This happened across several fieldsites. It has been common in the recent history of media for companies to first focus on growth prior to finding a route to commercial success.

WhatsApp has become a conduit to more intimate, private conversations, having become the platform of choice for both those who are tech-savvy, as well as those who are just getting used to their first smartphone. In some cases (including personal anecdotes I’ve been privy to), WhatsApp extends digital literacy to people who are not necessarily very good with email: it is not uncommon for a recent smartphone user to say they will WhatsApp something, while at the same time finding attaching it to an email difficult. But is this because the app is particularly user-friendly to use? Or is it because, forced by circumstance, for example if working or living in different countries, users were forced to be on it because most of their friends were on there, which has imposed a sort of digital literacy on them? And what happens when media reports surrounding the new terms and conditions proposed by WhatsApp causes a significant drop in users, so much so that the company has been forced to postpone their implementation due to backlash? Although Whatsapp has said that the contents of its messages will remain end-to-end encrypted, many users have interpreted the prompt on their phones asking them to accept the new terms as a sign that parent company Facebook will be able to access the content of those messages. What WhatsApp will be able to collect, however, is meta-data about its users: who they message, how frequently, and at what time (but without having access to the content of those messages). Alternative messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram are perceived as having benefitted from the fact that users tend to be more suspicious of WhatsApp due to it being owned by Facebook, as well as due to a general atmosphere of suspicion towards Big Tech.

As much as there is some talk of users moving to apps like Signal or Telegram (both plagued by their own problems, related to potentially being used by extremist political groups to organise), WhatsApp has become the medium through which a large proportion of the world communicates privately. This encompasses not just messages that set up meetings between friends or help people keep in touch with family members, but much more than that. WhatsApp chats have been used in court to present evidence (and such evidence is precious when the accuser/victim has not backed up their claims via another, more official channel, like email), to organise shifts in professional settings (sometimes disadvantaging those not using the platform), and even to provide the members of political groups with a place to organise operations.

It is hard to predict the future, but at the same time, it is difficult to believe that in a short space of time, users whose lives are effectively currently stored on WhatsApp will make the move to alternative apps (that is, if they even care about what data is collected about them in the first place). Adopting a new communication channel, if the mass momentum isn’t there – is just not worth it. As it stands, I currently have two friends on Signal and if I were to choose to move away from WhatsApp, I would have to persuade my entire family to join me. As we know, getting large amounts of users, not all of whom are tech-savvy, to download and install a new app is not without its hurdles.

You can download a list of the sources I linked to in this blog post here.

A few thoughts on Covid surveillance technology solutions in Africa

p.awondo19 March 2021

Fig 1: Screen showing Covid-19 prevention messages in a UN office in Ouagadougou. Photo credit: Charles Somé.

A few days ago, I came across a rather unusual document. It is a compilation of different technologies put together by the European Investment Bank, entitled Covid-19: Africa’s digital solutions[1]. It was published last year, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and it sets out to identify the digital solutions currently on offer in the response to Covid in Africa. Several things strike me as I read this document: firstly, the breadth of these initiatives seems to reflect a faith in the ability of technology to respond to the health crisis. The inventory reports that about 100 digital solutions have already been ‘implemented’ or tested as of 20 June 2020. It also gives an estimate of the investment needed to implement such ‘high-impact’ solutions.

Then, there are different types of tools being promoted in different countries. There are collaborative tools such as Zoom and Skype, which have multiplied greatly, and use messaging apps such WhatsApp in professional contexts such as education, has also gone up. Traditional media, such as television, for example, has remained important due its ability to reach a great number of people during the crisis. Innovations also include tracking applications based on geographic information technology for epidemic surveillance purposes. On page 15 of the document, contact tracing apps are described as follows: “These applications, which often use geolocation data from telecommunications companies, help to identify contacts of people who have tested positive and help to locate areas where the virus is spreading.” We learn that applications have been developed and put to use in Kenya, Morocco and Rwanda among other countries. FabLab, an innovation hub in Kenya, has developed an application called Msafari, which can track public transport users.

Other digital tools have been used for mass communication and self-assessment of risks and symptoms. In Sierra Leone, for example, an existing public platform using unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) has been expanded to allow citizens to self-assess their symptoms and get alerts on developments on the COVID-19 front in the country.

The use of drones has also been experimented with to deliver pharmaceutical products or to transport PCR tests from remote areas to laboratories in big cities like Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire or Kigali in Rwanda.

But are all these innovations and techno-digital solutions going to make a difference in the medium or long term? Firstly, let us recall that there is a gap between the international presence and publicity around various technological innovations, some of which can even be award-winning, and what actually happens on the ground.  Throughout our 18 months of fieldwork in Yaoundé for the ASSA project, we noted this significant gap, which says something about the difficulty of digital applications and solutions when it comes to capturing the attention of users.

The profile of a young Snapchat user in Cameroon. The screen shows various COVID-19 messages superimposed onto a photo of the user. Photo sent to the author by research participant.

In most of these countries, although tracking applications were received with curiosity, they nevertheless worried public opinion because they raised problems of data use and privacy. Not only are they worrying, but they are not always seen as appropriate solutions for the local context. Interfaces such as the one in the picture above, where COVID-19 related messages fit into the user interface seamlessly, work well in the context because they fit into the social media landscape. Young people want to show concern about the virus and they might adopt features of a social media network that support COVID-19 messaging for a few hours occasionally during the outbreak. But for that, they also need to be reminded by other channels of support and communication that the crisis is still there. The resonance of this issue is strongly linked to the strategic orientations of African countries in terms of their politics, economic situation and sensitivity to innovations.

Another part of the current debate concerns the mistrust of not only technological solutions but also of vaccines against COVID-19. For example, medical anthropologist Alice Desclaux and a team of French researchers [2], who undertook an exploratory study among 215 people in four African countries this year, found that 2 out of 3 participants said they would refuse to be vaccinated against Covid-19. They say: “reasons for refusal included firstly fear of any side effects hidden by the pharmaceutical companies, and secondly the perception of the vaccine as a tool in a plot by Bill Gates to reduce the African population or by a coalition of the powerful (states, global institutions) to enslave populations and ensure a “new world order” using corrupt authorities in African countries (“coronabusiness”). The study also found there was a preference for endogenous solutions to control SARS-CoV2, such as traditional medicine or the protection provided by religion.” There is therefore an urgent need to study more seriously the sources of the constant doubt surrounding the surveillance of epidemics, which are reflected and accentuated at pivotal moments such as Ebola or recently, Covid-19.

The central hypothesis of this is that the operational responses of nation-states are aligned with a policy of systematically using surveillance (biometric) and the tracing of infected persons (mHealth) as the preferred institutional response to emerging epidemics. However, this response has underestimated the capacity for the circulation of alternative interpretations of epidemics favoured by an abundance of content conveyed via social networks and smartphones. The direct access of the public to this content reinforces a widespread suspicion of local governments that are seen as corrupt and that accept servile compromises with the leaders of large pharmaceutical groups to the detriment of ‘African solutions’. Therefore the solution for helping people accept technological and digital solutionism to the crisis is not just to blame them for pharmaceutical nationalism, or their non-openness to innovations, but rather like anthropology and the ASSA team’s approach, making an effort to understand and carefully analyse not only people’s perceptions of the vaccine and the Covid outbreak, but also the intertwining of the logics behind them.

References

[1] European Investment Bank (EIB): Africa’s digital solutions to tackle COVID-19, found at: https://www.eib.org/en/publications/african-digital-best-practice-to-tackle-covid-19

[2] Desclaux A, 2021, « Covid-19: En Afrique de l’Ouest, le vaccin n’est pas le nouveau « magic bullet », available at: https://vih.org/20210202/la-mondialisation-des-informations-et-la-fabrique-des-opinions-sur-les-traitements-du-covid-en-afrique/