Ever since Facebook, after paying billions of dollars for WhatsApp, began demanding that the instant messaging app deliver profitability, things seem to be returning to a common sense principle that should never have been abandoned: instant messaging apps are not meant to be profitable, but to facilitate communication between people.
There’s a problem with superimposing a business model on an instant messaging app: it’s something computer engineering students do as class assignment. It’s not particularly sophisticated or inherently complex. The idea is that if you want someone to pay for the use of an instant messaging app, you have to make it not only differentially better than the competition, but also capable of attracting lots and lots of users, so as to bring about the network effect: when you log in, you find that your friends already have an account there. If you don’t charge for it, the alternative is very unpalatable to users, because instant messaging is the place where they exchange information with their friends and family, and the idea of you spying on them to try to monetize that information makes them feel constantly spied on.
What’s the problem? WhatsApp has long been the jewel in Facebook’s crown, its most popular and the one it sees as its future, and the prospect of a mass exit by users of an asset that cost in excess of twenty billion dollars is terrifying. But as said: making a good instant messaging app is not hard, the real challenge lies in creating the network effect. Meanwhile, some of WhatsApp’s already well-established competitors, such as Telegram or Signal, are out there ready to offer an alternative, and have seen downloads grown by 1,200% since WhatsApp began announcing changes to its policies: downloads of Telegram, which already started from a reasonably large user base, rose by 98% in the first four months of 2021, and those of Signal, which was somewhat more unknown, by a staggering 1,192%.
In both cases we are talking about applications that do their job, unsurprisingly, very well: encrypted, secure, and free of the threat posed by attempts to monetize their users’ data. They are not equal: given the choice, experts prefer Signal’s privacy guarantees over Telegram’s, and the fact that the former belongs to a non-profit foundation that only aims to offer a good open source messaging tool, while the latter is under the control of Pavel Durov, an outstanding Russian developer who fled his country and who has financed it so far with his own funds, but who has already announced that he will soon exploit it economically while trying to respect user privacy. In my case, I uninstalled WhatsApp a long time ago and use instead both Signal and Telegram, and I have never had, for the moment, any privacy issues.
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Is Signal the answer? Probably yes, given that its creator, Moxie Marlinspike, created the encryption protocols used by WhatsApp. In any case, the choice of which tool we go to if we abandon WhatsApp does not depend so much on us as on the decision of our friends and family to accompany us in that change, something that forces users who care about these issues to become missionaries and try to spread the word.
Fortunately, common sense usually prevails, and the idea of concentrating activities with consequences for our privacy under the same roof seems ill-advised, especially if that provider is has showed itself to be a complete disaster at managing that data and is only interested in monetizing it. Whether or not you use Signal for your instant messaging or not, escaping the clutches of Mark Zuckerberg will always be a good idea, because a single provider having a virtual monopoly on your information is a bad one
We will see how that market evolves. But what is clear for the moment is that, whichever way you look at it, there are plenty of fish in the sea other than WhatsApp.