What's up, folks?

What's up, folks?

Back in September, I got a short video on my office Whatsapp group. It showed the road outside my office building, inundated in calf-high water. "Looks like we're not commuting tomorrow," the sender said. One hour later, the official message came through from HR. "Due to waterlogging, everyone is advised to work from home for the next two days." It surprised no one. After all, we'd all seen the video and knew exactly what the situation was.

Think about it enough, and you'll conclude this is some kind of landmark moment for us as a society: being able to get news and updates, consistently, without the aid of mainstream media. How many times has this happened to us in the recent past? Where did you first hear of demonetisation? Where did you first hear of Sridevi's passing away?

The class of software responsible for this, mobile phone-based social networking apps, has had one of the fastest adoption rates around the world, and probably nowhere more than in India. The most popular instance of this category is, of course, Whatsapp. Today, literally everyone you know, and more, has a smartphone and Whatsapp installed on it for communication.

It's not just news that Whatsapp users disseminate. Every Indian is aware of the infamous "Good Morning" messages that crowd into our message inboxes every morning. Many of us even pass them on between groups. Studies have shown that a large portion of phone storage space in India is filled with Whatsapp forwards - leading to complaints like poor phone performance and a shortage of bandwidth. The huge demand for phone memory led Google to create an app just to free up space on phones - it's called Files Go. It uses the very latest AI technologies to sort out which of the images are Good Morning, and motivational messages, and make them easy to delete. This app has been downloaded more than 10 million times so far - quite impressive, considering the very narrow need it serves.

It's doubtful that the creators of Whatsapp foresaw the impact that their software would have on the world. Brian Acton, Jan Koum, and Igor Solomennikov (this last member found through a search on a freelancing site), created the first version of Whatsapp in 2009. At the time, it was just a way to display a status message next to usernames. But when Apple introduced Push notifications - i.e. the ability for an app to receive a notification in the background and pop up into the foreground - they quickly took advantage of it and released the second version, adding a messaging component. This second version increased the userbase to 2,50,000 by October 2009. Then on, the reach has only grown. The founders deliberately made Whatsapp a paid app initially to slow down the growth - not that this has stopped people from taking advantage of free trial periods. In 2014, it got acquired by Facebook for a whopping $19 Billion - which, in retrospect, was a smart decision by them, because as of December 2017, there were more than 1.5 billion users of this app worldwide. Yes, billion.

And out of this, 200 million - 20 crore - are in India alone. Now imagine all these people sending Good Morning messages, every morning! Sometimes the load gets too much for Whatsapp's server to handle - a whopping load of 20 million Happy New Year messages, sent on December 31, 2017, crashed the Whatsapp servers for a little more than an hour!

At its core, instant messaging is not exactly a new concept - mobile phones have always had
SMSes (and then MMSes), and then at some point Email on phones became easy. But the peculiar blend of ease and functionality that Whatsapp has perfected has made it an essential app. If you have a data connection, you are already set up for using Whatsapp. You don't need to know anyone to get into the 'club' - anyone from CEOs to cab drivers use the functionality. Carpenters use it to share sofa designs with prospective clients, and PR agents use it to send invitations to media briefings. The intuitive 'sent-received-read' notification system for each sent message is understood immediately by the novice.

Group glue

And nothing exemplifies the 'stickiness' of Whatsapp better than the Groups that it supports. Every mobile phone user worth his/her salt is part of at least a dozen groups: from groups of school friends, to college buddies, to society and neighbours, parents of schoolkids in the same class, and any number of office groups for faster sharing of information. And who can forget the ubiquitous 'family' group, composed of all the relatives who can get along with each other (and some who can't) - the modern equivalent of the annual family gathering. There are more formal groups, of course - for learning Kannada, for sharing recipes and so on. But the Whatsapp group, with its invite-only feature, the uncomplicated multimedia support, the sheer simplicity, has completely replaced mailing lists, and even other social platform communities, as the de facto sharing model.

In some ways, Whatsapp is responsible for getting families together like never before. No matter if cousins are on different continents now, or if elderly parents are still in small-town India, or even if jobs keep people busy during odd hours - now that everyone has a Whatsapp account, and everyone has something to share, you are never more than a quick message away from the extended family. No one ever forgets birthdays now, and news of sickness, of promotions, of new babies (accompanied by innumerable photos of said babies), flashes far and wide on the family group.

The sheer variety of material that flows on the Whatsapp network is mind-boggling. There are
unplugged performances of classic film songs. There are lectures on the Bhagavad Gita. There are any number of joke videos, equalled only by the 'emotional moment' and 'social duty' videos. In a typical day, you might learn how to perform party tricks, know about the dietary effects of vegetables, see an aarti at a famous temple, and see college kids pulling pranks on friends - either for laughs, or ending in tragedy. There's no doubt that Whatsapp forwards are keeping India entertained more than the mainstream media is.

But the fast movement of news and information, unchecked by any editorial influence, has its downsides. During stressful times - riots, or natural disasters, rumours have a way of spreading unchecked on these platforms, and growing. An out-of-context, old video of a train crash, say, or cars on fire, could be repurposed to be a here-and-now rumour that frightens all recipients. With the pace at which these messages spread, there's no way to pinpoint the source. There are also conspiracy theories like specific coins or notes being declared invalid/fake, which lead to trouble for customers and shopkeepers alike. Not to mention the innumerable 'medical' advice videos, purporting to cure everything from cancer to diabetes, which do more harm than good.

Things get worse when there is an agenda behind the videos. Political discourse in India seems to have moved to Whatsapp. Vitriolic videos exposing the 'misdeeds' of all the major political leaders are around. Simplistic explanations of economic policies get forwarded from friends and acquaintances. From one angle, this free flow of information is good - no government agency and no publishing-house-with-an-agenda can control what the people are seeing. On the other hand, there is no editorial influence to stop the flow of obviously false stories. A recent study, published in Science magazine, showed that people are more likely to forward news that felt novel and had a strong emotional reaction - never mind whether it was true or false. False stories, of course, fit these parameters better. A desi would have nodded at this report and concluded succinctly, "people want masala, after all."

Some of this astonishing willingness to consume and forward information is because most Whatsapp users are relatively new to social media. Older people, rural residents, or even craftsmen, haven't really used computers or the internet before - Orkut, Facebook, and other social networks were limited to rich, large-city youngsters. But now, on the one hand, smartphones are within reach of everyone, and on the other, data plans encourage the usage of apps on the phone.

Along with the original messaging and image forwarding features that Whatsapp provides, users are now beginning to adopt it for more advanced (and data-intensive) purposes. The app allows voice calls and video calls now, along with things like location sharing. These become affordable with the low prices of data today - and I know more than one person who prefers Whatsapp voice calls over normal calls because of the reliable data bandwidth as compared to the spotty network signal. The life of the average citizen of India, in a way it never did before, is beginning to revolve around her mobile phone.

And the phone is now beginning to take over probably the last unaffected frontier in our lives: money. Two years ago, India launched UPI, a mechanism to easily transfer money from one bank account to another, using apps. Overnight, apps sprang up to take advantage of the new protocol, and UPI began to be used for things as diverse as paying autorickshaw bills and house rent. Now social media apps are getting into the game -Whatsapp, for one, launched a payment mechanism over its platform recently. With its huge user base in India, this feature is likely to take off, and make money transfer simple and fast.

Pesty space

Not everyone is happy with stated and unstated expectations from social networking media. Just responding to all the messages can be a time-consuming job - keeping your cool at provocative messages requires an effort sometimes. Of course, the patriarchal bent of Indian families carries over to the 'family' groups as well - older members expect deference on issues from youngsters, getting annoyed when their orthodox views are questioned.

Whatsapp is probably not the final word in social networking. This is a technology that is evolving very rapidly, trying to keep up with an equally fluid social environment. Where its focus on smartphones has enabled it to steal a march over the previous generation of social software (Facebook, Orkut), concerns about privacy and verifiability may make Whatsapp lose out to newer software. Snapchat, for example, is winning the field in terms of privacy. Any number of news websites are trying to figure out how to distribute verifiable news content - a counter to all the fake news that gets spread on Whatsapp. And of course, as a software company, Whatsapp is still struggling to figure out how to earn money from all the usage of its product.

But for now, the instantly recognisable pinging of Whatsapp notifications are ubiquitous anywhere in restaurants, offices, homes, markets, and any place people take their mobile phones with them. Good morning messages aren't going anywhere.

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