The Evolution of WhatsApp: From Messaging App to Global Communication Phenomenon

In 2014, WhatsApp was primarily useful for just text messaging. Back then, features like emoji reactions, high-definition video sharing, GIFs, stickers, read receipts, and voice or video calling were not available. Despite these limitations, over 500 million people worldwide adopted the app. It provided them with the freedom to exchange unlimited messages using emerging cellular data technology, without incurring additional costs from mobile carriers for each text message.

Little History about WhatsAppWhatsApp

WhatsApp initially launched in 2009 by its founders, Jan Koum and Brian Acton, with a simple purpose: to display status messages next to people’s names in a phone’s contact book. However, with the introduction of push notifications on the iPhone later that year, it quickly evolved into a comprehensive messaging service. Fast forward 15 years, and WhatsApp has transformed into much more than just a messaging app.

Today, WhatsApp plays a significant role in various aspects of life. It serves as a crucial tool for political parties’ propaganda in countries like India and Brazil, a platform for millions of businesses to connect with customers, a means to send money to individuals and merchants, a distribution channel for publications, brands, and influencers, a video conferencing system, and even a private social network for older adults. Despite its diverse functionalities, WhatsApp remains a beloved choice for long-distance couples to stay connected.

According to Surya Mattu, a researcher at Princeton who oversees the university’s Digital Witness Lab, WhatsApp is a unique platform that blends elements of both media and messaging platforms. Unlike traditional social media platforms, WhatsApp boasts a large user base but lacks features like recommendations and social connections. As a result, it navigates its own path, distinct from conventional social media platforms.

WhatsApp Comfortably Sits on Top

WhatsApp’s immense scale surpasses that of almost every other social network and messaging application. As of 2020, WhatsApp reported over two billion users globally, surpassing the user bases of iMessage (1.3 billion users), TikTok (1 billion), Telegram (800 million), Snap (400 million), and Signal (40 million). It even outstrips fellow Meta platform Instagram, which boasts approximately 1.4 billion users. The only platform larger than WhatsApp is Facebook itself, with over three billion users.

WhatsApp has solidified its position as the world’s primary communication platform. A decade after its acquisition, its expansion shows no signs of slowing down. Even in the US, it’s starting to make headway in the midst of the competition between green and blue bubbles, reportedly emerging as one of Meta’s fastest-growing services. According to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, WhatsApp represents the “next chapter” for the company, as he mentioned to the New York Times last year.

What Really Contributed to WhatsApp’s Global Expansion? WhatsApp

Will Cathcart, a long-serving executive at Meta who assumed leadership of WhatsApp in 2019 following the departure of its original founders, attributes WhatsApp’s early global expansion to several factors. These include its affordability (or near-affordability – WhatsApp once charged users $1 per year), compatibility with almost any phone, including low-end Android devices prevalent worldwide, its ability to reliably deliver messages even in areas with poor network conditions, and its simplicity. WhatsApp stood out for its straightforwardness, devoid of the extra features that cluttered many other messaging apps. In 2013, a year prior to its acquisition by Facebook, WhatsApp introduced the feature allowing users to send short audio messages.

That was really powerful,” Cathcart told Engadget, “People who don’t have high rates of literacy or someone new to the internet could spin up WhatsApp, use it for the first time and understand it.”

In 2016, WhatsApp introduced end-to-end encryption, a significant selling point according to Cathcart. This feature essentially turned WhatsApp into a black box, ensuring that the contents of messages were hidden from everyone, including WhatsApp itself, except for the sender and receiver. That year, WhatsApp also announced that one billion people were using the service every month.

The Journey of WhatsApp has never been Smooth

As hundreds of millions of people in densely populated regions, such as Brazil and India, gained internet access for the first time due to affordable smartphones and data plans, WhatsApp experienced explosive growth. However, this growth also brought about significant challenges. WhatsApp became a channel through which hoaxes and misinformation spread rapidly. In India, which is currently WhatsApp’s largest market with over 700 million users, the platform suffered propaganda and disinformation aimed at opposing political parties. There was also widespread support for Narendra Modi, the country’s nationalist Prime Minister, despite accusations of undermining its secular values.

The situation escalated tragically when, in 2017 and 2018, frenzied mobs in remote areas of the country acted on unfounded rumors about child abductors circulated through WhatsApp. These mobs lynched nearly two dozen people in 13 separate incidents. In response to this crisis, WhatsApp took action. They implemented significant product changes, including clearly labeling forwarded messages, which were the primary means through which misinformation spread on the platform. They also imposed severe restrictions on the number of people and groups users could forward content to simultaneously.

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In Brazil, the app is widely regarded as a crucial tool in the victory of the country’s former President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Bolsonaro, a far-right leader, was accused of mobilizing his supporters to bypass WhatsApp’s spam controls to conduct extensive misinformation campaigns. They sent out thousands of WhatsApp messages attacking his opponent, Fernando Haddad.

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WhatsApp Partners with Fact-Checking Organizations

Since these incidents, WhatsApp has formed partnerships with over 50 fact-checking organizations worldwide. Because WhatsApp encrypt its messages, fact-checkers rely on users reporting messages to their WhatsApp hotlines, and they respond with fact checks. Additionally, WhatsApp introduced product changes, such as allowing users to quickly search the web for a forwarded message to fact-check it within the app. Cathcart mentioned that there might be more actions they can take over time, including potentially utilizing AI to aid in WhatsApp’s fact-checking efforts. He said, “There’s a bunch of interesting things we could do there; I don’t think we’re done.”

WhatsApp Keeps Getting Rich in Features WhatsApp

Recently, the messaging app has been adding new features quickly. These include sharing large files, messages that disappear after the receiver views them, Stories similar to Instagram (called Statuses), and larger group calls. But a brand new feature called Channels was globally launched in fall 2023, pointing to WhatsApp’s aspirations to be more than just a messaging app.

Channels, as described by WhatsApp in a blog post, are one-way broadcast tools for admins to share text, photos, videos, stickers, and polls. They’re similar to Twitter feeds from brands, publishers, and people you choose to follow. Channels have a dedicated tab in WhatsApp, but users can only interact with content by responding with emoji — no replies. Currently, there are thousands of Channels on the app, with over 250 having more than a million followers each. These include figures like Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny (18.9 million followers), Narendra Modi (13.8 million followers), FC Barcelona (27.7 million followers), and the WWE (10.9 million followers). Despite being in the early stages, Channels are becoming a way for publishers to distribute content and build an audience.

“It took us a year to grow to an audience of 35,000 on Telegram,” said Rachel Banning-Lover, the head of social media and development at the Financial Times, which has 155,000 followers. “Comparatively, we achieved a similar-sized following on WhatsApp in just two weeks,” she told Nieman Lab in November.

WhatsApp Keeps Growing in the U.S

WhatsApp’s success in continually adding new features without becoming overloaded has enabled it to flourish, not only among its core user base but also more recently among users in the US. Data shared by analytics firm with Engadget revealed that WhatsApp had nearly 83 million users in the US in January 2024, compared to 80 million the previous year. A few years back, WhatsApp launched an advertising campaign in the US — its first in the country — featuring billboards and TV commercials emphasizing the app’s emphasis on privacy.

Zuckerberg himself echoed this sentiment in 2021 when he shared a “privacy-focused vision for social networking” on his Facebook page. “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident that what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around,” he wrote. “This is the future I hope we will help bring about.”

How Meta Generates Money with WhatsApp WhatsApp

Meta has now started leveraging WhatsApp’s extensive user base to generate revenue, although the exact amount of profit remains uncertain. “The business model we’re really excited about and one that we’ve been growing for a couple of years successfully is helping people talk to businesses on WhatsApp,” Cathcart stated. “That’s a great experience.”

Meta earns money from WhatsApp by charging large businesses to integrate the platform directly into their existing customer interaction systems. Additionally, it integrates the entire system with Facebook, allowing businesses to place ads on Facebook that, when clicked, open directly to a WhatsApp chat with the business. According to Meta, this has become the fastest-growing advertising format across the company.

Several years ago, a configuration change in Facebook’s internal network caused multiple Facebook services, including WhatsApp, to go offline for over six hours, bringing many online activities to a standstill.

“It’s like the equivalent of your phone and the phones of all of your loved ones being turned off without warning. [WhatsApp] essentially functions as an unregulated utility,” journalist Aura Bogado reportedly wrote on X (then Twitter). In New Delhi and Brazil, gig workers were unable to reach customers and lost out on wages. In London, crypto trades stopped as traders were unable to communicate with clients. One firm claimed a drop of 15 percent. In Russia, oil markets were hit after traders were unable to get in touch with buyers in Europe and Asia placing orders. After fifteen years since its inception, the messaging app now dominates the world.

Source / Via: Engadget

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