THE WORLD OF WHATSAPP
If Jan Koum and Brian Acton hadn’t been turned down for jobs at Facebook, the lives of a billion or so people around the world might look somewhat different today. Their failure to get hired, however, left the two former Yahoo! employees with enough time on their hands to play around with an idea. And eight years ago, that idea became WhatsApp.
Like most incredibly lucrative inventions, it doesn’t sound like much; just a free, quick and easy mobile phone messaging service, allowing users to set up specific groups of friends around whom messages will be sent en masse. But last year it overtook traditional SMS text messaging in popularity and increasingly it’s weaving itself into the fabric of modern life, for what it really does is create private meeting places in a very public online world. In that sense, WhatsApp is beginning to turn friendship back into what it used to be before Facebook (which inevitably bought the app three years ago); not vast, sprawling networks of people you barely know but small, intimate
circles of trust where like-minded people can share stuff that matters to them.
Sometimes it’s things that would be boring to anyone outside the circle, as with the legions of family WhatsApps used to share baby pictures, in-jokes and gently nagging messages from mothers to far-flung offspring at university. For teenagers, they’re places to dissect last Saturday night in excruciatingly minute detail, and develop their own intricate etiquette along the way. (It’s rude to ignore an unfolding group chat, since the app can let the rest of the group know who’s online and if they’ve read a post; but it’s just as rude to bombard the group with endless witterings or prolong the conversation after everyone else clearly wants to stop. The ethics of sneaking off with one member for a private chat behind the group’s back, meanwhile, remain a minefield.) But sometimes what’s shared is anything but dull.
Shortly after June’s general election, Tory MPs used WhatsApp groups to canvass backbench opinion about Theresa May ’s prospects – so much more discreet than huddling in the corners of Commons tearooms, as plotters did in a more analogue age. They’re routinely used on all sides of the house to swap gossip, agree lines to take across groups of sympathetic MPs – Brexiters, say, or Labour moderates despairing of Jeremy Corbyn – and support individuals under pressure. They’ve played a pivotal part in exposing sexual harassment in both politics and journalism, with victims swapping names via a “whisper network” of like-minded WhatsAppers. And for political activists inside repressive regimes, they can be a lifesaver.
Yet the app’s system of secure end- to- end encryption – which means that nobody outside the group can intercept the messages – also attracts those with more sinister intent. The home secretary Amber Rudd suggested earlier this year that it was one of several potential hiding places for those plotting terrorist atrocities – Isis recruiters have been known to use it and Khalid Masood sent a message on the service shortly before killing six people by driving his car into a crowd of pedestrians on Westminster Bridge earlier this year. The FBI, meanwhile, is said to be concerned about its potential use in money laundering, insider trading and other financial crimes.
The biggest danger for ordinary users, however, is that while a group may feel like a safe and private space, it can be anything but. It’s so simple for the distracted to send what was meant to be a private thought around the wrong group, as the Labour MP Lucy Powell found out when she accidentally texted a less than flattering message about frontbench colleagues to the entire women’s parliamentary Labour party.
And, unlike a whispered conversation in real life, WhatsApp leaves an electronic record that can all too easily be leaked by a rogue group member; like human friendships down the ages, it’s only ever as strong as its most gossipy link. Some things, it seems, even technology can’t change.