At Amplify, we investigate the links between people’s interaction with social media and the effects that this interaction has on user behaviour. As part of a new series of articles, we will discuss how people use different media to express themselves and how these channels of expression vary between different groups. This week, we dive in with WhatsApp.
WhatsApp is a free instant messaging service for mobile phones. It also has desktop capability through the WhatsApp web interface. It is a global entity with 1 billion daily active users. How people interact on the platform varies according to their age and geography. For younger users (below 30), WhatsApp is preferred for making plans, chatting and sharing memes.
Older users tend to use it to chat and spread information. WhatsApp is like the social media megaphone of the 21st-century village crier, as people use video recordings to disseminate information about the latest riot or violent incident. These images are widely shared and recycled through conversations, broadcast messages and group chats.
News avenues like this are vital in the Caribbean, where it can be difficult to receive pertinent, and at times, vital information quickly: in Trinidad, local activists use WhatsApp messenger to send out video footage to warn people of an oil spill.
Among Jamaicans living in the diaspora, WhatsApp is outcompeting the big phone companies as families turn to the service to keep in touch. During Hurricane Irma, people across the islands used WhatsApp to communicate with family and friends in the line of the storm to check up on them before and after impact.
The adoption of WhatsApp as a news source is less commonplace when people have access to both home computers and laptops. For the older generation who skipped using desktops and laptops, WhatsApp is the first taste of the benefits of instant communication. Unfortunately, this limited familiarity means the platform is also privy to the distribution of videos that offer dubious health advice and chain messages. The sensationalists amongst our various social groups, who may use the platform to disseminate information that is false, effectively interrupt the reliability of the first-hand account.
WhatsApp is now in the process of developing tools for businesses, and these will likely expand the capabilities of the format to ordering goods through verified businesses on the app. What this may look like in the future is, for now, a mystery. But for a potential insight into what it could look like, we can turn to China.
Originally billed the Chinese version of WhatsApp, Wechat started as an instant messaging service. Since then, it has expanded the functions you can perform with it. In Beijing, you can use the voice message function to order a taxi and then return seamlessly to the conversation you were having.
The development and massive popularity of apps like WeChat in China suggest that a multifunctional app with different integrated uses – booking a table, paying for a meal and ordering a taxi, all in one app – is the final manifestation of the desire to have as many possible functions at our disposal within one space. This is an intensification of the habit of using the multifunctional smartphone as a tool.
The use of the phone with a torch, a clock, a compass and a host of other features has changed what we yearn for. While it may seem absurd now to own a phone with one app that does everything, this can be seen as an extension of a desire to own a multifunctional app within a multifunctional tool. This desire may be especially prevalent in those who only use their phone as their primary technological tool. In other words, people get so used to using “one tool” that does everything, that they want “one thing” (in this case an app) within that tool to do everything for them.
While it remains to be seen whether WhatsApp will seek to adapt its functional capability to the extent of WeChat, the app changes will have an effect on how we order and interact with local and large businesses around us.
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