One of the theses presented in the Pew Research Center’s report on the Future of the Internet is that by 2025 the Internet will become “invisible” and we will no longer think about “going online”. One clear example of how that has already happened is that of WhatsApp and how widely common it has become in Pakistan. Its ubiquity combined with the advent of 4G network coverage means people now expect to be instantly connected on WhatsApp and there’s no more “going online” as it runs in the background. Is this a good thing for everyone? For this field research, I tried to find people who have actively avoided using WhatsApp in order to understand if it can have any negative effects on its users. The findings show that some people have serious concerns with using WhatsApp but it has become increasingly difficult for them to avoid using it. The conclusion is that it’s important to be critical of the role WhatsApp plays in our public and private conversations.
This research involved four semi-structured interviews. All participants are current students or alumni of my former school. Participants were recruited through a social media group and shortlisted on the criteria that they must be smartphone users and they must have actively deleted or uninstalled WhatsApp from their phones. The goal for this research was to find answers to the following questions:
- Are there people who have deleted their WhatsApp accounts? What were the reasons that drove them to this point?
- What was it like for them to quit WhatsApp? What challenges did they face? How did they deal with those challenges?
- Did they go back to using WhatsApp? Why or why not?
The common reason why all four of my participants had deleted their WhatsApp accounts was because they didn’t want to be “accessible”. They felt that as long as they were active on WhatsApp, they were considered “always available for a chat”. However, the reasons for seeking a break from this constant availability varied according to each person’s context. One of the participants shared that she was struggling with social pressure and anxiety and in all of this WhatsApp became one of the triggers for her panic attacks. She could see a direct correlation between how anxious she felt and whether or not she was using WhatsApp. On the other hand, another participant felt that keeping up with the conversations on WhatsApp took away too much time from her. This manifested in the form of never having time left for her non-work interests and prevented her from finding the right work-life balance ultimately leading to resentment and stress.
“…I just don’t like being that accessible. Unread messages bother me, I have to reply immediately, otherwise I start feeling terrible…its just something that never ends” – M, one of the participants of this study
Despite having such serious concerns with using WhatsApp, none of the participants have been able to stay away from it for too long. In fact, all four of them now have a sporadic on-and-off relationship with WhatsApp wherein they uninstall it from their phones every few months and then eventually ending up coming back. This is primarily because it’s just become prevalent and necessary in professional settings. One of the participants detailed an incident when she was on her longest hiatus from WhatsApp for around three months but she had to make her account again because one of her professors was using it to communicate with her class! Another participant stated that it was needed to communicate with their international team at work. When asked why their team could not use any other tool for this communication, they said the culture of using WhatsApp was already built into their organization and it just wasn’t possible to convince everyone to stop using it.
All of the participants also talked about how they were pressured into coming back to WhatsApp by their family and friends. WhatsApp becomes the default place where people coordinate their social engagements and share links, files and photos with each other. Even though the participants tried to convert their connections to other solutions like Telegram which is a similar but less common app or websites like FileBin or Google Drive for file sharing or simply going back to email, these were not long-lasting solutions. Other people did not consider the ramifications of using WhatsApp serious enough to convert to these solutions. Consequently, the participants felt a difficult trade-off between their own privacy and peace of mind and keeping in touch with their social connections.
Nearing the end of the discussion, I asked each participant to think about what they would change in WhatsApp to make it easier to use for themselves. This led to some interesting ideas for potential features. The justification for each feature reflects the kind of problems the participants faced and underpins our conversation on the limitations of the app. Some of the most interesting feature ideas are listed below:
- “Ghost mode” – Travel through the app like a ghost so that you can peacefully access all of your conversations, media and documents which are saved on the app but no one should be able to see you online or message you;
- Archive forever – Archive a conversation or a group forever which means you will not see them in your immediate chat list but the person or the group on the other end will not know that you have archived them;
- One-on-one – Conversations work more like real life so, for instance, users are only able to send one text at a time and have to wait for the other person to respond before they can say something again;
- Chat requests – People have to send you a request if they want to be able to chat with you on WhatsApp, they can’t automatically message you when they have your number and you have the power to turn off requests.
This report highlights how the widespread use of WhatsApp and the way it is designed can negatively influence some of its users and contribute to anxiety and stress in their lives. It is, therefore, important that we adopt a critical view of using WhatsApp, becoming aware of its drawbacks, seeking people’s consent before we engage them on it and carefully considering whether it is the best platform for our next public or private conversation.