Don’t shoot the (WhatsApp) messenger just yet…

By Tom Flynn

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp in 2014 saw the social media giant dramatically increase its dominance in the instant messenger platform space. Since then, WhatsApp has grown in popularity and, together with Messenger, has made Facebook the instant messaging market leader in 90% of countries around the world.

Things were going (relatively) smoothly until the end of 2020, when WhatsApp announced changes to its T&Cs whilst telling users that they would be booted off the app if they did not agree to the change. This ‘take it or leave it’ stance sparked a PR disaster, leading to a huge backlash from media and users alike. In an attempt to smooth over the ruffled feathers, the deadline for T&C acceptance was pushed back to May 2021 to allow WhatsApp to attempt to dispel the disruption.

However, rumours started spreading on various social media platforms, including WhatsApp itself, that the new T&Cs allowed Facebook to access the content of messages, a serious violation of privacy. WhatsApp has vehemently denied these claims, stating that the changes only relate to the business offering on the platform and seek to clarify existing arrangements around how the company stores data.

Sadly for WhatsApp, it can be difficult to put the conspiracy genie back in the bottle. Rival messenger platforms Signal and Telegram have seen an enormous surge in traffic and downloads in recent weeks, with Signal downloads reaching 8.8million in the week following WhatsApp’s announcement – up from a mere 246,000 globally the week before, urged on by high-profile figures such as Tesla founder Elon Musk, who told his Twitter followers to use the app earlier this year.

Whilst Telegram was already more popular than Signal, it has also benefited from a huge boost to download numbers, going from 6.5 million downloads the week prior to WhatsApp’s news, to 11 million downloaded globally per week afterwards.

But the impact on WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook has been overstated in recent media reports. In large parts of the world, the company’s dominance comes from Messenger rather than Whatsapp – the USA, Canada, Australia and France, for example – and the fallout has not affected downloads of Messenger which is basically a compulsory download for anyone wishing to use Facebook’s mobile app. And in the places where WhatsApp dominates (UK, Germany, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa), it really dominates, with 2 billion users worldwide. The gains made by competitors are a drop in the ocean compared to WhatsApp’s vast user base.

And whilst it is relatively easy to download and use another messaging app, convincing your contacts to follow you is the tricky part. Don’t believe me? Give an elderly relative a (WhatsApp) call today and convince them to learn to use a new app they’ve never heard of…