It was not so long ago that messaging your friends through your mobile phone was a simple task. You opened the ‘messaging’ app, typed your message, and sent it. Everyone’s phone worked (broadly) the same way. Everyone used the same emojis, and everybody got their messages in the same format. You didn’t even have to download an app to do it – the ability to send and receive messages came with your phone. You might have had to remember which numbers corresponded to which letters, but it was broadly easier than it is today.
Here in 2021, the landscape is a little more complicated. You have multiple options by which you might send your friends a message. You might message one person at a time, or you could send messages to one of the dozens of groups you might be in. You can still use your phone’s standard SMS and MMS messaging facilities, but you’ll seem quaint and old-fashioned if you do so. It’s far more likely that you’ll use WhatsApp, or perhaps even Facebook Messenger, to go about the task. Other apps exist, but they’re the most popular of them by a considerable distance. That might be about to change. Thanks to a timely intervention from Elon Musk (of all people), 2021 might turn out to be Signal’s year.
The fact that there are such a plethora of messaging apps is, perhaps, a little surprising when you consider that they basically all do the same thing: convey text, images, or video content from one place to another. Perhaps we have to look to online slots websites to explain why so many can succeed at once. At the very top level, you won’t find much in the way of difference between one online slots website and the next when it comes to games and features. All the best online slots are on all of the best websites. It’s only through terms, conditions, benefits, and behaviors that one online slots website gains an advantage over another, and the differences in people’s preferences when it comes to those terms are what accounts for the fact that there are so many of them. Hundreds of different online slots websites can survive and thrive so long as they can approach their chosen trade in a unique way, and so, it seems, can messaging apps. WhatsApp has been the app of choice for a long time, but a new change of policy might put that status in jeopardy.
At the moment, WhatsApp users are free to use their accounts independently of Facebook, even though Facebook owns WhatsApp. This allows people who don’t have a Facebook account to use WhatsApp, and also allows people to keep their data separate even if they have accounts with both services and use them both regularly. From February 8th onward, this will no longer be the case. Users will only have two choices; they can either grant WhatsApp permission to share data with Facebook (and vice versa) or surrender their accounts. There’s no means of opting out, and at the time of writing, the company doesn’t intend to create one. Exemptions have been granted in the UK and the rest of Europe because of data protection laws that apply to the continent, but the United States of America and the rest of the world has no such protection.
That news hasn’t gone down very well with some of the platform’s two billion users, who distrust Facebook’s data protection policies because of past high-profile failures and lapses made by the company. Facebook has been keen to point out that messages will remain encrypted, which means that Facebook cannot see the content of any message you send to any user, but data regarding who you’re messaging and how often you send messages to them will be shared with the social media platform. The move represents a formalization of WhatsApp’s relationship with Facebook. Until now, the company has been allowed to continue operating separately after being acquired by Facebook in 2016. What Facebook intends to do with the data or why the company has felt the need to make the change is unknown, but many users discussing the topic on social media suspect it has something to do with advertising.
If a significant number of WhatsApp users are irritated enough by the change of policy, they might move elsewhere, and that could allow smaller apps like Signal and Telegram to benefit. We can expect both of them to embark on aggressive marketing campaigns in the near future, but Signal’s unexpected recommendation from Elon Musk, who posted the message “Use Signal” on Twitter on January 7th, led to the previously little-known service trending for several hours and prompted a surge of downloads. Signal, which appeared to be taken by surprise by the sudden rush of demand, was forced to apologize for the resulting delay in verifying new accounts.
It isn’t known whether Musk has an account with Signal, but it’s probably fair to assume that he doesn’t use WhatsApp. Facebook is one of several large technology companies that Musk has been critical of in the past, and he even went as far as blaming Facebook for playing a role in the recent attack on the American Capitol by a mob of Donald Trump supporters. Musk is known for taking swipes at his rivals on social media, and he’d presumably enjoy seeing Facebook’s share of the messaging market take a dive.
Facebook, for its part, is unlikely to be pleased with the idea of thousands of WhatsApp users deserting its platform and heading for a rival company instead. Whether that results in a charge in their plans before February 8th remains to be seen. For all the criticism that’s often leveled at Mark Zuckerberg’s company, it isn’t deaf to feedback and has changed course in the past because of negative responses to planned policy changes. If the company’s internal numbers record a spike in people deleting their accounts over the next week, don’t be surprised to see them reverse course and allow people the option to decline data-sharing between the two apps after all. In the meantime, be prepared for at least some of your friends suggesting that you join them on Signal rather than messaging them on WhatsApp as you normally do.