Why not being on WhatsApp not being a big deal is a big deal

Here is a confession: I am not on WhatsApp. I have been using the service a while ago, when I tested to distribute blog posts through WhatsApp. Other than that I just never felt the pressure to use it: I use various other messaging services (Facebook Messenger, Threema, iMessage, Slack, Twitter Direct Messages, Swarm, occasionally email, rarely Snapchat but possibly more often in the future) and usually I am able to reach everyone that I want to reach conveniently in one way or another.

While not being a WhatsApp user might not sound like a big deal for Americans, as a European, this is not something you hear every day. WhatsApp nowadays counts more than 1 billion people as active users, and Europe had been one of the app’s first regions of rapid growth. In Germany, Europe’s most populous country, the number of WhatsApp users is said to be north of 35 million. You have to search really hard to find someone who does not have WhatsApp on their smartphone.

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I am one of these people, but it is not because I have no one to chat with. On the contrary, I am chatting a lot with a lot of people. But as stated in the first paragraph: just not through WhatsApp.

When Facebook started to grow rapidly and quickly added hundreds of millions of (mostly) younger users, non-members quickly found themselves excluded from gossip, parties and other social events. Facebook was THE one place which connected friends, colleagues and acquaintances. If a person did not use Facebook, there was no alternative service with a comparative network density of contacts. Not even close. You had to be on Facebook, our your social live was damaged.

Back then it would have been impossible for me to be absent from Facebook. Nowadays, I can be absent from WhatsApp – the service that one out of seven people on this planet actively use – and it is not an issue at all. That’s a big deal.

The current messaging world is different than the old social networking era. Right now, there is not THE one messaging service. There are plenty of them. Certain regional and demographic power concentrations aside, at least within the typically more tech savvy age groups, many people are active on multiple messaging services and chat apps. If you can’t reach one person on one app, you probably can do it on another one. The effort to participate on multiple messaging services is negligible, as is the harm for the user experience caused by not having everyone on the same service (it really only is a problem when you cannot get everyone into the same chat group).

The situation has been like that for a few years now. But there is no guarantee that it will remain like that. For the companies behind messaging apps, the thought of creating a type of strong lock-in effect resembling Facebook’s previous one is attractive. The less time people spend on other services, the more possibilities for monetization arise. Thus, messaging apps will try hard to become less interchangeable. If a chat experience is totally awesome and “enhanced” with secondary (but useful) features on one service but generic and limited on another, people will more likely try to get all their contacts onto the awesome one.

The chat wars are definitely exciting right now, with WhatsApp adding encryption, Facebook Messenger opening up for bots and external services (and also adding Payments), Snapchat doubling down on sophisticated multimedia messaging, Twitter trying to catch up, and various other competitors (like Line, Kik and Telegram) are adding features as well. In its current phase, the messaging sector is characterized by a high level of competition as well as the existence of a lot of choices and low switching costs for users. That’s pretty great for everyone who’s not into the “Winner takes it all” dynamic otherwise seen in network-centric Internet consumer markets. But one has to expect a lot of pressure from the services that will try hard to change the rules of the messaging game.

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