How WhatsApp swallowed half the world

By: News Desk      Published: 08:21 AM, 8 Oct, 2021
How WhatsApp swallowed half the world
File photo.

When the app suffered a six-hour outage this week, millions of people's lives were thrown into turmoil. Why were they there at all?

When Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp went through a six-hour outage on Monday last, your immediate reaction was probably based on two things: where you live, and where your family lives.

For those based in the so-called “Global North”—a squishy socio-economic phrase that encompasses countries like the United States and Canada—the news likely came as a relief. You may know Facebook as an awful site with awful design that’s full of awful people, and the less time anyone spends on it the better. But if you live in a place like Brazil, Uganda, or any other country in the “Global South,” Facebook’s services aren’t just apps where your weird uncle goes to share Trump memes. In fact, they’re not apps at all. They’re utilities. They’re communication and commerce, newspapers and yellow pages, all at once. So when all of that goes down in one fell swoop, you’re not relieved. You’re panicked. And if you have loved ones on the other side of that North/South divide, they’re probably panicked, too.

As someone who’s straddling that divide to keep in touch with my own family back in Israel—a country that’s considered in the Global North but where roughly 90% of citizens have WhatsApp downloaded onto their phones—I can confirm that we’re also kinda tired. We’re tired of trying to get our cousins on board with any of the other apps available for messaging overseas, and tired of realizing every time that it’s simply infeasible. An economist might say that the social costs involved with switching are too damn high, but I think there’s a simpler way to put it: When your entire life is on a bundle of apps, cutting those apps out of your life is like a virtual surgery.

The thing is, nobody seems to know why their lives are on these apps in the first place.

As it turns out, the “why” is... complicated. The Global South encompasses dozens of countries across multiple continents, and so we can’t feasibly cover every unique stew of socioeconomic and cultural issues that resulted in each of them being chained to a handful of apps. But if you take a step back and squint hard enough, what becomes clear is that Facebook was never the villain here. (Or, at least, it’s not the villain you might think it is.) Phone companies are.

Market researchers here in North America will often talk about the “mobile-first” generation when talking about Gen-Z, which is a polite way of saying that teens and tweens are pretty much glued to their phones all the damn time. But in the developing world, it’s not a matter of mobile-first—it’s mobile-only. In countries like India, Indonesia, and Brazil, cellphones are often people’s only way to access the internet. The same goes for the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africa, where close to 50% of citizens have access to some sort of mobile device when only a fraction have any hope of owning an at-home computer of any kind. In a 2019 Pew Research survey of 11 different emerging markets—including Kenya, Columbia, and the Philippines—54% of the web surfers surveyed said they were using the internet without any access to a computer or tablet at home. That same year, the number of mobile-only young adults in the U.S. topped out at 22% (and among older adults, that number was closer to 12%).

Again, lotta countries, so a lotta reasons why this is the norm. But overall, it boils down to what you probably already know: cellphones are generally cheaper than laptops and tend to hold a charge better, too—especially if you’re using a flip phone or bar phone, as many in these regions do. And when you’re potentially stuck in a region with spotty access to basic electricity, you need all the battery life you can get.

This wouldn’t be an issue if mobile carriers in these regions offered citizens affordable mobile plans, but many of them don’t. The most recent reports from the World Wide Web Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to crushing the digital divide globally, found that 1GB of mobile data can cost a person from 2.7% of their monthly income up to a whopping 7%, depending on where in the Global South they’re living. And when you’re living in extreme poverty already, suffice to say that the average phone plan is going to be out of your reach.

And they aren’t getting any cheaper. Telecom operators in areas like Brazil and South Africa enjoy a natural monopoly that’s festered over the past four decades. Unlike in the US, though, these regions don’t always enjoy the relatively (and I do mean relatively) robust telecom regulation we have in the States. So telecoms stay big, and prices stay high.

Apps were the only thing that got consumers out of this mess. In 2004—the same year Skype introduced the ability to call people’s cellphones and landlines—international carrier traffic started tanking. And that traffic kept on tanking as more entrants came into the mobile messaging space, including WhatsApp (in 2009) and Facebook Messenger (2011). For the first time in recent memory, residents in many of these regions finally had a reliable and affordable way to keep in touch locally and with family living abroad: all they needed was a cheap device and some sort of internet connection.

Naturally, telecoms were scared shitless over all this. After a few years of realizing that there was no way to compete with free, they begrudgingly opened up to lucrative partnerships with these app providers. Based on those deals, some telcos stopped counting apps like WhatsApp and Skype as part of their customer’s data usage, or by offering these customers access to a slew of apps (known as a “bundle”) for a set price every month. These sorts of partnerships have kept on thriving in the years since, in some cases overtaking typical SMS services as people’s preferred way to chat.

And because WhatsApp had a two-year head start on Facebook Messenger—not to mention compatibility with a ton of different mobile hardware,—WhatsApp was getting more partnerships and going further with them. So Facebook, being Facebook, did what it usually does in these sorts of situations: it bought WhatsApp in 2014 for a solid $16 billion (plus $3 billion in stock for founders and employees), and kept striking up those partnerships in the years since. And with that, it bought into a userbase that consists of much of the Global South.

Of course, this is Facebook we’re talking about—a company that loves reminding us how it lives and breathes small businesses. So in the years since that acquisition, we’ve slowly seen the tool you use for messaging your grandma turn into the tool you use to message your favorite plumber, your local diner, and, well, any other business under the sun. This past summer, Facebook lumped in-app shopping functions to WhatsApp, followed by a new local business directory feature last month. These aren’t the first business-friendly updates Facebook’s tried tacking onto its messaging apps, and they definitely won’t be the last, even if we wish that they were.

And that’s a big “if”: for better or worse, Monday’s outage was a good reminder of just how much these apps revolutionized the way emerging economies operate. Here in North America, we’re all pretty familiar with the concept of impulse buying crap we don’t need after seeing it flash by our Instagram feed, but we have choices. We have banks we can walk into whenever we want, and Walmarts and Trader Joe’ses that are ready to take our hard-earned cash or credit cards when we put them down. In much of the developing world, you have an app. And more likely than not, that app’s owned by Facebook.–gizmodo.com