In the 10 years since WhatsApp was first released to an unsuspecting UK public, it’s gone from a service that seemed surplus to requirements (we had texting, why did we need another instant messenger?) to the country’s most downloaded app – ahead of even Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Today around 58% of UK internet users reportedly have access to the app, proof of how many of us have come to crave a feeling of 24/7 connectedness – and double blue ticks – that we didn’t get from traditional texting.
But on Tuesday, the WhatsApp platform – which is owned by Facebook – announced it had been subject to an apparent cyberattack from hackers who installed surveillance software on both iPhones and Android devices.
Users have been encouraged to download the latest version (2.19.50) of the app to ensure they’re protected, but the hack has raised questions about how reliant we are on these platforms as our primary means of communication and the bedrock of our social lives.
Writer Jonathan Weinberg summed up the relationship lots of people have with Whatsapp. ”[The] problem is nobody speaks on the phone any more,” he told me on Twitter. “Even as boys me and my friends would speak on the phone to catch up. Now it’s all WhatsApp. We meet up even less now too and our lives have become fuelled by our WhatsApp connections.”
Weinberg said he has withdrawn from his two main WhatsApp groups in the past week for some “head space”, but knew he would be back. “Because if I don’t then how do I converse with all my friends in one go? And keep up with what’s happening in life/world. This is the pervasive problem with WhatsApp.”
Our social lives has become so intertwined with WhatsApp that when HuffPost UK recently launched its weekly series about friendship, we called it Group Chat – see what we did there. But what about those who don’t use the app?
We spoke to three people who do not use WhatsApp at all: one downloaded it but doesn’t use it, another downloaded then deleted it, and one has never downloaded it in the first place.
Maggie Baska from Reading had to download WhatsApp for her work but has never used it personally. She says she forgets the app even exists until a random notification will pop up once every couple of months.
“I can go months without really ever interacting with anyone on it,” she said.
Instead the 26-year-old, who is originally from the US and still has family there, says she uses Facebook, Skype or Marco Polo (a video chat platform) to speak to family and friends abroad. And for friends in the UK, she goes old school and either calls or sends them a text message.
Does she feel like she’s missing out by not being part of the conversation? “Not really,” she said. “I feel like most of my interactions with people are in real time, or I’ve already made time to video chat with my family back in the states.”
She acknowledged that a “good deal” of her UK friends do use WhatsApp and so there are times when a group chat will happen and she doesn’t see it. “But I am also the type of person who frequently loses their phone for days on end, misplaces it for hours or just never remembers to turn on WiFi or data. So I often never think of my phone as a primary means of communication with the outside world.”
Divyesh Purohit, 36, who now lives in Gujarat in India, says he had Whatsapp for five years from 2012 to 2017, but decided two years ago to delete it because he was being bombarded with more and more “useless messages” – especially from groups that he’d been added to without any choice.
“Most of the messages and videos were repeated in many groups. Some times in the same groups. At the end of the day deleting the messages was more of a headache,” Purohit told HuffPost UK. But he didn’t always feel that way.
“Initially it was fun to use. It was also helpful to stay in touch with family and friends, also to get more interesting video stories,” he said. “Slowly as more people started to use it, I began to get mostly useless messages.”
When his work tried to get him to use WhatsApp as a communication tool, Purohit says it was the final straw. Today he calls and uses Facebook to stay in touch – professionally and personally. All his friends still have the app but he would only go back “in an emergency”, he said. “I do not miss it.”
Aisha Waraich, 21 from Berkshire told HuffPost UK that she deleted Whatsapp after she felt she was becoming too attached to it. But she says she feels constant pressure to re-download it. She misses out on conversations with her friends, she says. “Everyone I know has WhatsApp. I still get people pressuring me to download it again like family and friends because they use it often.”
Now that she relies on text messaging, she also has to be more vigilant about using up her data allowance every month and being charged extra for it.
Meanwhile Pragya Agarwal, 42, from Formby has never downloaded Whatsapp, despite a lot of pressure from family and friends to do so. “I have come close to downloading it a few times,” she admitted.
Does she feel like she’s missing out? “It seems to be very popular in India where much of my extended family is. It also seems that so many of my professional contacts are on WhatsApp too. My University alumni group is on WhatsApp and I’ve been told that I’m the only person missing from it,” she said.
Agarwal recently spoke at a TEDX talk and found out just beforehand that all communication about the event had taken place on WhatsApp with the other speakers forming a group she wasn’t part of, which made her feel excluded.
“Occasionally I feel that I am missing out, but then it is yet another platform and app to use and get hooked to, and I am trying to reduce my time on social media,” she said. “I am trying to limit myself to a few select platforms and more mindful of my use of digital technology.”
Echoing many others, Argawal said the pressure of group conversations is overwhelming and she’d feel the need to contribute constantly. She is very conscious about data privacy – a worry this latest hack does not quell.
“I always think that if someone does want to get in touch with me, they have numerous other ways to do so. I can’t say never, but at the moment, I am quite determined not to add yet another form of digital communication to my life.”