THE WORLD OF WHAT­SAPP

The Observer Magazine - - NEWS -

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.

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