WhatsApp Delays Data-Sharing Plans
Apparently, we’re all “confused” about what data it will send to Facebook
WhatsApp caused quite the ruckus a couple of weeks ago.
It emerged that WhatsApp was set to force users to accept data-sharing with Facebook, or have WhatsApp removed from their device.
WhatsApp has shared some detail on the data they plan to share, in handy visuals like this:
They say user data will only be shared when it relates to conversations they have with businesses.
- Who’s talking to a business on WhatsApp?
- Balderdash. This is just phase one of the plan.
It’s a bit like when FC Barcelona announced in 2005 that they would display the Unicef logo on their shirts, which had hitherto been unblemished by the crass commercialism of a sponsor’s logo. Any old fool (me, for example) could see this was a Trojan horse to get people accustomed to seeing a logo on the shirt. Soon after, Unicef was replaced by the slightly-less-wholesome Qatar Foundation.
They get us used to things phase by phase. Sure WhatsApp might only share this data now, but one day they’ll be interrupting your conversations to try and sell you “contextual products”. If we let them get away with it, that is.
Here’s my (reasonably) short take on the WhatsApp plan:
- This has been in the pipeline for a very long time: Facebook only knows how to make money from ads. It paid a fortune for WhatsApp and the company’s founders left because Zuckerberg insisted on using WhatsApp to run ads. To do so profitably, it needs our data.
- Some might say that users threatening to leave WhatsApp will spook Facebook — but it will only do so if any exodus hits Facebook’s central business. They don’t care that you text people using their free service; they care about how that interaction can benefit their core business model. Facebook doesn’t want to lose WhatsApp users, but it won’t keep subsidising their conversations forever.
- WhatsApp’s ‘network effects’ are not permanent: You know how, when you go to a pretty empty restaurant, they ask you to sit by the window? All the studies show that makes other people more likely to come in. If there are two equally good restaurants, with similar menus, people will choose the one that already has some people inside. Other people being in the restaurant makes the restaurant seem better. There are physical limits to this; we don’t want to go to a crowded restaurant, for example.
- It’s actually known as the ‘selfish herd theory’. We want other people to take the plunge before we do. Adélie penguins hold back before jumping into the Antarctic waters, in case there are hungry seals in there. Eventually, some take the risk and others watch. If it’s safe, they jump in too. If other people are eating the restaurant’s food, it must be alright.
Now, think of WhatsApp.
- It matters that other people are on there. In fact, it’s the only thing that matters. If you were the sole person in the world with WhatsApp, it would be useless. In ye olde days, you’d probably be burned as a witch with your magic texting application. In today’s world, you might like the emojis or the gifs on WhatsApp, but the main lure is that everyone you know is already there. If they leave, you’ll leave too. Nobody eats at the empty restaurant.
- This is one reason Facebook wants to integrate WhatsApp with its other services. WhatsApp offers very useful functionality but it can be substituted with other services, if everyone decides to leave. Ironically, Facebook has initiated this process in its attempts to reduce its eventual likelihood. It just takes one wrong move from the platform owner and we can all leave.
- The Facebook brand is toxic: The announcement that WhatsApp will start sharing a small amount of data with Facebook is enough to create a worldwide stir. Nobody trusts Zuckerberg and the suggestion that we are all just “confused” by the policy update will do little to allay our fears. WhatsApp already hoovers up a lot of our data anyway and the more it draws attention to this, the more damaging it will be for its reputation.
- But watch what people do, not what they say they will do: Sure, a lot of people are downloading apps like Signal at the moment. It will take a lot more for a true migration from WhatsApp to occur. People are great at the initial, outraged stage; but they rarely follow through. It seems like further integration with Facebook is the one thing that might push us all over the edge.
Like many fellow users, I’m waiting for others to take the plunge first.
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