The real significance of WhatsApp

I’ve been convinced for ages that the advertising-based business model of most web services is ultimately going to wither away for two reasons: it depends for its survival on the ruthless exploitation of people’s privacy; and it will have to increase its intrusiveness in order to generate the returns that investors require – which means that users will become increasingly hostile to it, and eventually seek alternatives.

It’s also seemed obvious to me for a long time that, in the end, cyberspace will have to resemble Meatspace in one respect – namely that if you want to have something that costs money to create, then you will have to pay for it.

What’s so refreshing about WhatsApp is that its co-founders understood that from the beginning. People who use the service will have to pay (modestly) for the privilege. There’s such a refreshing honesty about that, compared to the manipulative dishonesty of what Jaron Lanier calls the “siren servers”.

None of this is new, of course: wiser people than me – for example Doc Searls – have been saying it for years, as Zachary Seward points out in a splendid post on Quartz.com.

He writes about the “disquieting suspicion” that, in the long run, advertising simply might not work for the mobile web.

“No one wakes up excited to see more advertising, no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow,” Koum wrote in 2012. It echoed a prophesy that writer Doc Searls made about the web all the way back in 1998: “There is no demand for messages.”

Of course, Searls wasn’t talking about the kind of person-to-person messages that WhatsApp specializes in. Rather, he was pushing the idea that the internet would lead to the erosion of mass media where messages—think corporate marketing or political messaging—could be imposed on people no matter what. That happened to an extent, but most of the web’s big businesses—Facebook chief among them—can fairly be described as mass media. At any rate, they have been successful selling ads.

What if things are different—and much closer to Searls’s vision—on the mobile internet? [Jan] Koum [WhatsApp's co-founder] certainly thinks so: ”Cellphones are so personal and private to you that putting an advertisement there is not a good experience,” he said last year. He has described mobile messaging as a utility akin to water or gas.

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