WhatsApp has long held a strong position within the world of digital messaging. Since 2009, the app has been growing userbase to a staggering 2 billion, as of the end of 2020; users valued the easy-to-use interface and encryption that ensured everything they sent was genuinely private.
Now, however, these numbers are plummeting, and what was once the go-to application for so many across the world is now falling apart.
This comes at a time when WhatsApp only recently unveiled new features that were intended to augment users’ faith in the app, and ensure no other messaging service could boast better offerings for users who wanted to keep private content private. Read more below.
Erasing the Digital Footprint
As of November 2020, WhatsApp now offers the option for its users to enable disappearing messages, which will automatically wipe messages from the conversation after a week has passed. WhatsApp explained this new feature on the basis of giving users more control over their ‘digital footprints’ which, in this instance, refers to our movements as they relate to the wider digital world.
This interest in mitigating the mark our daily dealings leave on the web, however, grows a little less clear when compared with the newest controversy WhatsApp has found itself in. In one sense, WhatsApp is handing over the reigns to users who want more control over their digital lives, and, in another, they are taking them further away.
Privacy Vs Anonymity
WhatsApp’s decision to offer disappearing or ‘ghost’ messages to users comes at a particularly interesting time, given the new security concerns that have deterred countless long-term users from continuing with the service any longer.
In a nutshell, WhatsApp – which, it is important to remember, is owned by the social media giant Facebook – has informed users that, after 8th February 2021, their data will be shared from the messaging service to Facebook.
If users do not agree to these terms, then they will be unable to continue to use the messaging service.
Of course, many have elected to do just that, and to turn to an alternative messaging service instead. Even Elon Musk recommended users make the switch, citing more privacy-focused services like Telegram and Signal.
It would seem to the casual observer as though WhatsApp has taken one step forward, and several kilometres back in terms of reassuring its users. Once revered as the secure alternative to other messaging channels such as, say, Snapchat or even Facebook Messenger itself, it is now being abandoned en masse for services that, just weeks ago, could only have dreamed of boasting the metrics WhatsApp garnered over the years.
It would seem that, for all its merit as a secure messaging service, WhatsApp remains a tool for Facebook to wield in the fight for data and the billions that lie in utilising it for advertisers.
So, on the one hand, WhatsApp is furthering its efforts to demonstrate its value as a secure and private service; users have more control than ever before over the messages they send, and how long they exist within the digital realm. On the other hand, WhatsApp is effectively immortalising every move we make within the app, turning our daily habits into what amounts to its own digital currency: big data.
What Will Happen?
WhatsApp users are currently in the middle of a mass exodus. At this point in time, it is still too early to guesstimate quite how many users the application has lost over the past week or so, but it is clear that the numbers could prove devastating for Facebook. Rival applications have seen staggering increases in daily downloads as mobile phone users flock to the app store for a viable alternative to WhatsApp, as trust in Facebook’s data collection methods remains incredibly low.
This comes at a time when Facebook continues to see a significant drop in interest from users. In 2019, it was revealed that almost two thirds of Americans did not trust Facebook with their personal data. As we grow more discerning towards the ways in which our online movements – even those that are, at least on the face of it, totally banal – we continue to want to move away from those services and companies that seem most interested in tracking them.
For the most part, anyone standing in the gaze of a security camera will, very rapidly, start to feel uncomfortable. The story is the same for anyone on the web; as soon as the knowledge that they are being observed begins to sink in, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to feel comfortable remaining in that position, using those same applications.