“If people think Game of Thrones is gripping, try following the birth of a child through WhatsApp,” says Asad Moghal who – over the years – has followed both of his sisters giving birth via the instant messaging platform.
Originally from Derby but now living in London, the 27-year-old couldn’t get time off work for the most recent arrival in February. Instead, he relied on his elderly parents and brother-in-law to deliver a running WhatsApp commentary from the hospital. And the first time he saw his new niece’s face wasn’t in person but in a photo shared to the group chat within hours of her birth.
Moghal only downloaded WhatsApp five years ago but says he can’t imagine life without it, so big a part it plays in his family’s dynamics. Not only does it facilitate everyday chat (he messages his mum first thing each morning and his dad last thing at night), it’s also a window onto life-changing moments, which previously only those in the room would have witnessed.
“My phone is constantly vibrating with notifications of pictures of my nieces and nephews, my mum checking if everyone has had lunch, or my dad asking if people are watching the cricket World Cup. It excites me how my parents, natural technophobes, have embraced the technology,” he explains.
For eight weeks this summer, ITV’s Love Islanders were also bombarded with the constant arrival of another “message!” But their cry of old, “I’ve got a text”, seems quaint in an era of WhatsApp, which thousands of viewers used nightly to discuss the comings and goings of the villa in fevered fan threads.
When the now Facebook-owned app launched in 2009, it introduced us to the very concept of the group chat. On the surface, SMS texts and WhatsApp weren’t that different but users quickly realised how seamless the new service could be. Whatsapp didn’t eat into text or call allowances on your plans, you could send media for free and, crucially, it made talking to more than one person easy. It was also the first experience many of us had with end-to-end encryption – a feature that meant data couldn’t be read by external parties.
A decade later, one billion people around the world use the app daily. In fact, there are only 25 countries where Whatsapp isn’t the market leader for messaging apps. In the UK, 58% of the population have it on their phones, making it the most popular chat service in the country – even more than Facebook Messenger. Other services like Viber tried to interrupt the market in the same way, but didn’t stick in quite the same way.
Famed for its double blue tick and allowing 13 hen-do group chats to exist simultaneously, everyone from young Tory activists (who were caught using it to discuss “shooting peasants” and “gassing chavs”) to Gemma Collins (famously banned from the Dancing On Ice group chat) exist in its green and white thrum, being served fresh dopamine hits with every new notification.
A culture and etiquette have grown up around the platform: the fewer group chats the better, don’t leave people on read without replying, and if someone is ‘typing’ for more than 10 seconds you’re in trouble. As for how to leave a thread without causing offence, please come back to us. And of course, it has also facilitated a whole new code of communication – the emoji. Who knew a string of aubergines would become universal shorthand for unspoken sexual desire?
The informality and ease of communication WhatsApp appeared to offer users made it a runaway success. No one could have anticipated how quickly it would replace texting, given it only saves a couple of seconds at most on SMS. When friends first suggested I download it, I dug my heels in for months refusing to believe it would add anything to my life. But in a world that is forever speeding up, every little helps.
And unlike a lot of tech, WhatsApp isn’t as exclusively youthful as some other platforms where you’ll only find one generation of user. Many young Facebook users ditched it when their parents started snooping on their photos – but you’re just as likely to find your grandma in a group chat as your school-age cousins.
I now “speak” to my sister who lives in Canada in a stream of consciousness broken only by one of us going to sleep – we share photos, videos and memes with almost no effort. Another colleague says her previously tech-phobic mother downloaded the app within a week of her moving to Australia and is never off it.
In centuries gone by, family or friends moving around the world to different time zones would communicate by letters sent on boats that took weeks to arrive. Even with the arrival of the landline, a catch up still involved planning and expense. That speed and cost of communication is barely fathomable today.
Dana James-Edwards, 37, lives in London but all of her extended family are still in Trinidad, where she was born and raised. She uses WhatsApp to keep in touch with her sister, and her mum, especially since the birth of her twins three months ago when she felt particularly felt the distance from her family.
“I typed things into that group chat I probably would never have had the courage to say out loud.”
“In the dark days at the start with all the hormones, and not knowing what I was doing, WhatsApp saved me. I have never felt so isolated in my life. But because my family were five hours behind the UK they would chat to me and keep me company at night. I typed things into that group chat I probably would never have had the courage to say out loud. And there was no judgement.
“After 4am, when they would go to sleep, I’d switch to my ‘Wandsworth Twin Club’ WhatsApp group. That chat was really active in the wee hours because everyone is up feeding and changing. It was so comforting to see messages pop up, and to know I had a whole community at my fingertips.”
As well as supporting family and friends at distance, people use WhatsApp for sharing good news across continents – as soon as it happens. Kam Scott, 25, from Bristol, found out her friend who lives in Mexico had proposed to his girlfriend. Others talk of receiving 12-week baby scans fresh from the hospital.
It’s useful not only for those isolated by geography but by illness and disability. Jamie Smith*, 29, who has chronic fatigue syndrome, says WhatsApp keeps him in touch with the outside world when he can’t physically be there himself. Katie Sawyer, 22, says the messaging platform has been instrumental in making her feel included in family chat as a deaf person in a hearing family.
The voice notes feature (which allows you to record short segments of speech and send them via WhatsApp) rather than type messages is also useful for those with disabilities or impairments who cannot use their hands easily.
But the app’s growth hasn’t come without hiccups: cybersecurity attacks left the company rushing to update in May 2019 after concern that hackers could inject surveillance software on to user’s phones. And in an era of fake news, the finger has been pointed at WhatsApp for the deaths of around two dozen people in India who were lynched after false rumours were circultated on the app (which issued TV ads urging users to “Share Joy Not Rumours”).
The service has also been blamed for episodes of unrest in Pakistan and in Brazil, where it’s been suggested radical activists on the platform helped see hard right president Jair Bolsanaro elected. In response, WhatsApp claimed to be deleting 2,000,000 accounts a month to blunt the wildfire of disinformation and in January it announced a new feature to stop users forwarding messages to more than five individuals or groups. The company hopes this will act as a roadblock against similar deluges in future.
In terms of software architecture, the forwarding feature isn’t the only thorn in WhatsApp’s side. That end-to-end encryption (which means Facebook cannot snoop) might be good for protecting your sexts but it has been criticised by politicians including Amber Rudd, who in her tenure as home secretary, said she was worried that terrorist cells were using group chats to plan attacks.
For individual users, there are other challenges. The number of notifications for a start – Lauren Green, 26, from Hull says she sometimes has to turn them off as she can be away from her phone for a matter of minutes and come back to dozens of notifications from a single group chat. Eleanor Kerslake, 35, who relied on it during maternity leave said she found it a pressure to keep on top of when she had a new baby to take care of, too. “I have a few family groups, NCT group, local mums group, work groups. Sometimes your heart sinks when you are added to a group for a birthday present or meeting – more life admin!”
HuffPost parents writer Victoria Richards, 37, chose to leave the WhatsApp group set up by parents at her children’s school to reduce her own stress levels. “And you know what? It’s worked. I feel calmer,” she wrote. “My weekends aren’t spent scrolling through hundreds of notifications about homework, because nobody can be bothered to check for the assignments online.”
And when you mess up your messaging, it can be horribly embarrassing. Dr Holly Powell-Jones, 30, admitted to accidentally sending a foul-mouth rant about a Greek restaurant to her in-laws group chat rather than her husband, leaving her worried they’d think her a diva. “I was absolutely mortified.”
“It make you feel like you’ve spoken, but it’s not quite the same.”
Is there a risk that WhatsApp is leaving us feeling more isolated, not less? That by equating quantity with quality, we kid ourselves into a false impression of connectedness. We live in an increasingly lonely society: 5% of adults (and a huge 52% of elderly people) in England say they ‘often’ or ‘always’ feel lonely, with women and young people disproportionately affected.
The paradox of talking more but connecting less is not lost on digital expert Tanya Goodin, founder of Time To Log Off. She says it’s something that concerns her. “You feel you’ve caught up with everyone because everyone chips in but that’s become a substitute for actually getting together. We know so much happens face to face, you look in someone’s eyes and read their body language and it’s hard to tell if someone is really okay in a message.”
As humans it has been easy to fall into the WhatsApp trap because we are inherently lazy and look for shortcuts, Goodin adds: “We all have busy lives and WhatsApp has been able to make us all feel connected with little effort – it can be good for logistics, but not for proper connection.
Goodin floats the question: how would you feel if a friend told you they were actually having a really tough time but didn’t want to interrupt the jokey chit chat? Kerslake has experienced this: “I’ll think I’ve been in touch with a friend and then realise that we haven’t been in a room together for over a year! WhatsApp makes you feel like you’ve spoken but it’s not quite the same.”
What implications does this have for human relations long term? Behavioural scientist Dr Pragya Agarwal says it is fundamentally changing the way we communicate. “Language is changing a lot. We don’t put that much emphasis on words anymore but more on the sentiment and emotion behind it so we are losing the nuances and diversity in language.
“I worry when people write quickly without thinking, as these technologies force us to do, we might be falling back more on our cognitive shortcuts or implicit biases and not taking the time to process information on a more rational level.”
Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin, an anthropologist and policy advisor, says it is is already having an impact on social cohesion. “Research has suggested that while time spent on social media was associated with a larger number of online social network ‘friends’, it was not associated with larger offline networks, or feeling emotionally closer to offline network members.”
There will always be people quick to bemoan changes in language and hand-wringing over the way we communicate now versus then, but there are as many people who dismiss this as unnecessary worry and promote the positive aspects of an adaptable and evolving communication.
“In order to form stable connections with one another and build close offline networks, we need human speech. But I don’t think that it is evolutionarily impossibly for humans to return to communication in a pre-technological era,” says Maheshwari-Aplin, who advises moderation when it comes to messaging and an awareness of the potential pitfalls for your wellbeing.
The future of communication is uncertain – for now, we’ll continue to rely on the messaging platform to be there when we physically can’t. Holly Powell-Jones remembers receiving a voice note from a friend crying in her office toilets. “I could literally hear it in her voice she was upset – it was so nice to be able to send her a voice message back. There’s no such thing as false connectedness.”