The latest ‘in’ thing to do is to pack up one’s data bags and leave WhatsApp for ‘safer’ options like Telegram and Signal. While this mass migration to other apps is indicative of a more data-conscious user base, it is also WhatsApp’s ‘Facebook’ moment. Just like Facebook went from being a cool website for the younger generation to being a playground for our family elders, WhatsApp also eventually became an uncle-aunty country and is now being ditched for trendier alternatives.
This ‘Facebook’ moment is the eventual decline of a social media platform after a period of intense domination. Arguably, it became very explicit in Facebook’s case after the mega-popular platform suffered a significant decline in users around 2017-18, and some even blamed poor parents for ‘killing it’.
Now, it seems like WhatsApp is following a similar trajectory. For the last five years or so, the messaging app has been the dominant medium of communication in India.
From loud and proud ‘Good Morning’ messages (that literally clogged the internet) to endless memes and videos, the application’s ‘free’ service was a game-changer for a country that for so long was held back by 100-texts per day plans.
But with the good came the bad, and then the very bad. Preachy lectures by distant relatives on family groups aside, ‘WhatsApp University’ became synonymous with fake news and disinformation, which could be forwarded as easily as one received it. “Verification, fact-checking, what’s that?” became the sentiment, as a lengthy message received on some obscure group became as trusted as something you’d read in a book or trusted news source.
Spamming and scamming have become part-and-parcel of the WhatsApp experience. But the recent software update that allegedly compromises quite a bit of user data is just cherry on the top. The recent update, which will come into effect on 8 February, has raised concerns about the app’s data sharing policy with its parent company Facebook. While WhatsApp has always shared data with Facebook, users do not have the option of opting out of this particular update.
Considering all this, it is not unusual to see that several people are choosing greener pastures, or at least what seem like better and safer apps. And this has happened before.
Also read: Network Effect, the force that could finish off both Trump and WhatsApp
Routine obsolescence of the social media universe
When Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook was at the peak of its popularity, circa 2008, it wiped out early, ‘prehistoric’ social media sites like Orkut, MySpace, and Hi5. The website became the cool new social network where young adults and millennials could chat, comment on each other’s photographs, and declare their friendship or relationship ‘status’. While Facebook essentially established social media as we know it today, it was eventually corroded by data concerns, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, misinformation, hate speech , and finally by parents, uncles, and aunties.
But somewhere around 2017-18, the rising popularity of Instagram and Twitter meant that Facebook stopped being synonymous with social media. Suddenly, it had become the repository of cringey greeting card messages, weird philosophical videos, and profiles of dubious spiritual gurus. It also became a site of political warfare — the Bharatiya Janata Party, for instance, mastered the art of using the social media site.
A 2018 report in The Guardian noted that about 3 million Facebook users under 25 in the US and the UK were either going to quit the site or just stop using it. While Facebook still has a considerable number of active users, its user demographics have changed significantly, and I’m fairly certain younger generations now won’t even bother signing up for it.
Also read: Not just Signal and Telegram, more apps offer ‘true privacy’ as WhatsApp popularity wanes
For my 12-year-old sister, Facebook is the ancient cousin of Instagram — which continues to rule the social media preference chart. But let’s not feel too bad for Zuckerberg. He has now not only bought both Instagram and WhatsApp, but this kind of eventual obsolescence of apps is also just part of the tech-landscape.
Instagram didn’t just replace Facebook, it was also responsible for the decline of another once-omnipresent social media app — Snapchat. Instagram ‘stole’ its stories and filters, and then no one cared about boring old complicated Snapchat.
Similarly, when Vine was launched in 2012, it was revolutionary. The video-making site allowed users to upload six-second videos, and suddenly everyone was a hilarious, talented content-creator. But it could never really compete with the dominance of YouTube. And then, of course, TikTok broke into the scene and the rest, as they say, was history.
All this is just part of the Darwinian evolution of applications — ultimately it is the survival of the newest, coolest, and the fittest. And right now, this means WhatsApp’s time may be over.
Also read: Quitting the school WhatsApp group is the liberation Indians need
Not so fast
WhatsApp’s latest update has suddenly made people wake up to the concept of data privacy, and flock to Telegram and Signal.
Everyone moving to Signal like it's Goa
— Shilpa Rathnam (@shilparathnam) January 14, 2021
Is Signal the messaging app Indians are migrating to, in order to escape good morning messages?
— Anahita Mukherji (@Newspaperwalli) January 13, 2021
But the transition has not exactly been smooth. The panic move to Signal and Telegram has been almost instantaneous, but users have now encountered a unique problem — there is no one to talk to on these new platforms.
Behold this hilarious meme, received as a forward on none other than WhatsApp.
signal download kar liya hai
baat krne wala Allah dega
— suckrates (@shifaphernia) January 9, 2021
Somehow, conversations are always ongoing on WhatsApp, on some family, work, or alumni group. A new app means new conversations, something a lot of people won’t be inclined to initiate.
Now having to ignore the same people on both WhatsApp and Signal
— Jairaj Singh (@JairajSinghR) January 14, 2021
And so, with the shift from a barrage of messages to utter silence, it’s no wonder some people are feeling very lost after the entire exercise of ‘saving their data’.
But apart from the nearly deafening silence, there is also something rudimentary about an app like Signal. It has the bare bones of instant messaging, but is devoid of the gloss that Facebook’s WhatsApp is characteristic of. And in this era, where artificial aesthetics somehow reign supreme, there is something comforting about Signal’s simplicity.
I’m definitely enjoying the quiet.
Views are personal.
Quote [ there is no one to talk to on these new platforms.] End quote.
Batting for Whatsapp, The Print? Signal has gained at least 200 million users in just a week, numbers that would match the best signup weekly numbers for WhatsApp during its existence. I understand it could be difficult for the “uncles and aunties” at The Print to switch and co-ordinate a move to a newer and superior app (try a voice conversation on Signal and compare it with one on WhatsApp for quality, for one – every uncleji and auntyji will sound more natural) but privacy makes sense. It works even for the buzurg community who are heartened by contrived cartoons put up by Facebook / WhatsApp shills. Take it from an old man who’s been there, seen it, and who works for a technology licensing practice for a living.
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