What’s Wrong with WhatsApp

Rejection. Not Without Reason | Part 3

Throughout this time, i questioned myself countless times — Is this the right medium for the mass?

Slowly, and painstakingly, I found it to be — Nay. And I have few good reasons to back this up.

As a person eager with observing technology and its progress, I had a tendency to hate certain things while loving certain others. And the hate-list grows longer the more I teach myself graphic design and user experience. But here’s the interesting part — Despite my loathing to many crappy products, WhatsApp takes the top list. Which is pretty surprising even to myself. But why?

Upon some reflection, I managed to sum up my thoughts in 3 fundamental points.

1. Efficiency: Communication at Risk

It was late after midnight. September 2013.

I went back from an important meeting after 30 minutes of driving. My body was aching and my eyes felt painfully heavy. I looked at my iPhone…

113.

In red circle, at upper right of this green icon. My reaction?

Whoa…

I reluctantly launched the app and painfully scrolled through the long list of in-group messages. Not out of interest to read all the jokes and laughs, but to pick up important announcement if there is any.

Just to be safe not to miss any of them, i copied every single announcement and pasted it in my Notes app. One after another.

It was a long day with just one or two quick meal to catch up with various other things only to end it up dealing with this deluge of endless stream of hanky panky. It initially, and to the best of it, felt cumbersome.

And that 113 kept on growing. Day after day.


Saturday, November 15 2014. 6.22pm.

And yes, it was a weekend.

I was not so well that day, had to come see my family before driving back 40 minutes or so back to my student residence. I pressed the home button of my iPhone and there I had it…

Missing in action, so they say.

Let me give some background — I was the leader of the group then. A smaller group of just 13 people from a larger 26 people.

What happened was — A lecturer earlier posted an emergent announcement in another group, an active one with 26 members. That group was so active more than just academic stuffs were posted in it making it so vibrant for a group of less than 30 people. Imagine a a wild stream of river following heavy rain — That was how active it is.

There was nothing wrong with having a vibrant group though. But the fact that such an announcement was posted in that deluge of endless chit chatting risks the very foundation of communication — delivery of message! Can you catch a single unexpected tree leaf recently fell into that river stream when you are at home immersed in books?

Can you see that leaf? There, can you see it? It’s coming, it’s coming!

And so it happened — I missed the announcement. What was it?

An ad hoc class with a professor from afar, United Kingdom. Since such class required the 2 groups in that posting to be agreeable to the timing and place, i was ‘contacted’ by the other small group leader — Via WhatsApp; on weekend; with expectation that the person contacted was online all the time, obliged to glance every notification of ‘huhu’ and ‘haha’ for the sake of a few emergent information.

As impulsive as the medium can be, almost every member of that larger group went into full-fledged frenzy. A complete chaos over simple stuff which was absolutely manageable. Out of that hot air came the claim —

Harith (is) MIA (missing in action).

At this point, it is inevitable to come up with three important points.

  • One cannot be ‘missing-in-action’ if he is not in regular working day like on weekend, right? (Ok, ok, I’m talking personal here. Absolve me).
  • Secondly, communication is void if the message doesn’t arrive at the intended person’s conciousness. (This is the very basis of society’s reciprocal interaction expounded in Sociology). In that case, how can a message be delivered to the exact person at the exact time if it is made so publicly in open air in the midst of many other irrelevant noises?

Drowned will the message be, muffled in the noises for certainty.

On the other hand, there is also a condition where one can’t expect the message to be read by the intended person even if it was sent personally (via WhatsApp) to the receiving end. This somehow denotes a more serious situation. Let me explain —

Since WhatsApp delivery of notification for both personal messages and in-group chit chats are dealt in similar manner, one can’t readily differentiate which notification is solely to him and which is a random one meant for everyone to read (or ignore). Surely one can always have a look at the screen, cluttered with WhatsApp notification from top to bottom. To all those ‘visual’ noises. But to look at them every now and then? Every few minutes in continuous giddiness over missing something a few seconds earlier?

The moment you’re tired with an in-group message notification, you’re most possibly going to miss the personal one meant just for you. Because you can’t differentiate between the two, at least visually or by vibration sense. The notification just doesn’t work, especially if you’re in an environment where phones are expectedly silent.

While turning off notification for that particular group is an option, the fact that most actvity occurs in group makes your effort useless. You might end up turning your phone on 3G all the time waiting for personal messages which will come once in a blue moon. It all simmers down to fatigue, 0r learned helplessness if you will, and that is when you stop sacrificing your phone and your money for this little green app.

I used to remind myself and some of my friends not to stick to the screen all the time only to look up realising you’re already 85 years old.

Is that exactly 85? Sorry, developmental milestone chart does not cover till senile age.

Even if the notification delivery is improved to be more specific as to the type of whose-message-to, we still need to have another consideration which brings us to the third point here -

  • One should treat messages sent via WhatsApp like an email message rather than those of instant messages.

What this means is we shouldn’t take WhatsApp like SMSes all the time where message sent is almost always delivered at that point. Rather take it as emails where one can always send a message yet it does not necessarily be read once you have sent it.

Consider the people using the service. If you’re in some place where constant internet connection is not guaranteed, you should take this seriously. As in Malaysia, this is definitely the case — public Wifi is a rare offering. Continuous 3G will not just permanently burn the battery in long run but also requires a brick-size box larger than your phone only for supplying power (and by repetitive charging, burns your battery permanently even further). And that does not include monthly cost of subscribing to an internet plan with the background of uprising living cost. So, not really a good idea.

One can always have cellular connection(!) some might say, apparently in disregard to the above argument.

Well, rightly so.

But one has to be sure that he’s willing to take the risk of not having the message delivered immediately if the other end decided to switch his cellular connection off. They are not bound to have it on all the time for any reason. By the way, cellular connection can be spotty even in the midst of Kuala Lumpur capital city. So by default, one should look at the number of ticks (and now the blue-coloured double tick as well). If it is not there, then know ye your message is not necessarily read.

What to do next?

Send a normal text message. Which also means, only at that particular moment, stop using WhatsApp!

It is that simple. But very few people in my limited experience do grasp this (apparently we need more data). Luckily I think I’ve discovered why. We will cover this later in the series.

One might rightfully ask — Why all these conditions? Or as some had already said to me — Why are you so complicated?

Well, since comunication is vital, requiring a structured environment with predictable human response while WhatsApp is not exactly offering that, then we the everyday people has to use our own mental power to solve this at out-of-code level, for which those coders at WhatsApp are possibly lacking (especially in terms of notification delivery catastrophe). That is of course, if you want to use the app for more than just ‘haha’, ‘huhu’ and a range of childish emoticons.

Even with all these conditions, communication still risks breakdown. And why is that?

It’s simply because communication requires a minimum of two persons interacting with each other, to a level of predictable coordination. Meaning — If you are the only one fulfilling these above conditions while the other party does not, the communication will still fail.

So, endless stream of structureless dialogue; faulty notification system; risk of cellular connection loss (or being switched off by any of two communicating parties) mean only one thing — Risked communication.

2. Society: Collapse of Structural Order

“Excuse me, Mr President,” says the general in chief at Department of Defense. The two officials are the elected top authorities in the most transparent, democratic country in the world called —

WhatState.

In this country, everything is super transparent. In the same spirit and for the sake of cheap and rapid communication for all, WhatState officials have made compulsory for every single citizen to be in a medium named — guess what — WhatsApp.

The general continues —

“We have an emergency situation with urgent call for action, Mr. President,” he ended with a suppressed voice as though he can’t hold it anymore. 30 million public citizens are on the alert, all receiving the same message, instinctively waiting for what comes next. It is Monday 9.41pm in the evening, local time.

“Continue on the condition, Mr. General,” replied the President. WhatHouse members, who are still debating on NSC, went to abrupt silence. The speakers in the parliament house boomed the very word of Mr. President.

After a few second, the Minister of Defense replied “Our military radar has detected two missiles of massive destruction, launched to the heart of our capital, sir.”

Thum, thum! — “We have just launched two missiles. Entering WhatState airspace in 2 minutes, sir,” reported a foreign navy.

Skipped beat.

“They come from a coordinate corresponding to the offshore of Telegrambodia. The missiles will hit in roughly 15 minutes sir,” and so ended the historic exchange. Another crushing silence.

What happens next?

Yup, it goes without saying, the alert triggered nationwide uproar with everyone including those in public service went into panic making rescue effort dangerously slow. The previously calm evening turned upside down with people not knowing what should they do. And not just them, even the officials!

But by the mercy of God, the havoc did not go for long. For some reason — guess what —the commotion all ceased at exactly 15 minutes. Their nervous breakdown ‘ended’ relatively fast.

This, in essence, is a true story. Of course with ‘slight’ modification to the characters, setting, and (thank God) the end result. But the medium used — WhatsApp — is true to the core.

In Sociology, there are two main social problems continuously dealt with. The first one is the problem of social organisation, and the second one is on social evolution. The former is covered under the headline of social statics, and it is not more difficult than the latter under social dynamics. 1

Let us just stick to the first one.

Mankind lives in society. From fulfilling basic needs to simply having someone to chat with, we just can’t live in seclusion. This is true regardless of any sociologist or historian you ask. In that sense society is naturally arranged into social orders, with some people at the top and some others down the line. Each one has their function and each has his respective necessary (and allowed) access to information. That is the basic reason why certain matters are private and confidential while some others are not. It is not just about protecting some data from theft or avoiding breach of intellectual property — It is intrinsic to the way we function as a group of society.

No husband should tell her wife with, say, borderline personality disorder that he has to leave overseas for a week without making pre-departure plan all in order. This is just one example. The above missile story is more descriptive.

The problem is — through some unexplained mechanism, the way people share information in WhatsApp specifically (though not exclusively) is skewed. For some underlying reason, they share every single piece of information among themselves even when such info should’ve reach their leader first. Surprisingly, as in my case, this also applies to the officials above the leader. These seniors too have a tendency to relay information, bypassing the elected leader, directly to the group.

What happens in this situation is free distribution of information, be it good news or bad news, without necessary filters. While this totally renders futile the group leader’s role in managing his people, it also has the potential to unnecessarily temper social stability (or peace of mind) even in that small a group. This is because such orders reach them as though they have no one to be their first line person, or to think about their general well being prior to the new arrival of information.

In short, social order or at least flow of order tends to be broken down. And it happens so silently, covered under the veil of ‘low-cost efficiency’, ‘transparency’ and ‘rapid communication’.

You may or may not realise this when you’re down the line. But you will certainly see this if you care enough.

3. Privacy: Disrespectful Pervasion

“Gosh, have you been added into this group?” asked my brother.

“What group?” I replied. “This group, the one named ‘Keluarga Hidhir’,” came a response. I just stayed silent, listening.

“They post lousy things in this group you know. Silly videos, lousy posters, whatever news they pick up from nowhere, those kind of things,” he vented.

“And now, they are trashing Dr. MAZA!” he continued. Now that really got me interested. “What did they say?” I asked.

“Wahhabi! They call Dr. MAZA Wahhabi!” my brother raised his voice. The background was — Dr. MAZA at that point just criticised our country’s leadership for being less sensitive to the people’s need with the then multiple rise of goods and taxes.

My brother’s phone. In that ‘wonderful’ group of ‘his’ (before he draggingly left)

“But wait — How come you’re not there? You’re part of the family too,” he said at last.

I remained silent, with a sly smile. Then what I was trying to say slowly dawned on him — I have no WhatsApp. Thus I’m ‘maksum’ (protected).

Ever heard of anyone claiming this in public?

Ok, ok. Actually I am not. There was an instance when I woke up one morning only to realise I have been added to a group and was asked to introduce myself (out of sudden!) Only after a few minutes did I realise a huge fact I was expected to swallow — I have been elected to a nationwide organisation, holding a post as chairman for one of its many councils. It was really a nightmare upon awakening, which is an irony in itself.

Virtual community, despite having no material manifestation, carries the responsibility of real community in many sense (minus the lacking of real human touch). We talk to people, we meet many of them. We join a group, and we leave some others. We spread good things and thawab is for us, we see bad things and ‘iqab is upon us if we do nothing. The fact that our interpersonal connection exists is undeniable and it comes along with rules which unfortunately are not so obvious. What I mean by this is there is persistent implication in the sense of hukm and responsibility.

The way we can’t call people foul names in real life carries the same weight into digital life. And the fact that we have to respect people’s choice for themselves remains unchanged too. This is where privacy is often pervaded with utmost disrespect, and the slightest insight.

How many times have you been added to a group you dont think deserve to exist? How many times can you recall when someone sets a group and add you into it without your consent? And how many times have you been in that condition yet the prospect of leaving it makes you feel obliged?

These are unnecessary disruption in digital life as much as it is in real social life. First of all, your right to choose which group to join at the first place has been denied. All that you have is only to choose later whether to stay or not to. Does it really has to be that way? Or should we just let it slide as it is?

Turns out — Neither does it has to be that way, nor do we need to let it slide.

Just consider this for a moment; If we are to couple this lack-of-privacy-control on group involvement, with the fact that notification for personal message is relayed by the same thread on your lock screen as those in group messages, you will find that this ‘feature’ (letting people adding anyone in a group without consent) is a huge blunder for the developers and a continuous disturbance for your daily life. This is especially true if you are to experience multiple ‘abduction episodes’ into the many worlds of imbecility (as in the example above).

Groups, like in real life, should be taken as houses.

We don’t kidnap people and put them in our house no matter how cool it is; instead we invite them to ours. This is basic constitutional rights — freedom! In this manner, we do not want to add people to a group without their prior aggreement. So in some way, developers of this app should add a layer of user interface which, rather than forcefully ‘suck’ people into a group, approaches them like an invite — with option button to decline on the left and accept on the right. In ‘iOS Human Interface Guidelines,’ it is mentioned under the topic ‘Design Strategy’ —

People — not apps — should initiate and control actions. An app can suggest a course of action or warn about dangerous consequences, but it’s usually a mistake for the app to take decision making away from the user. 2

This straight forward feature will effectively put mankind (yes, literally most of them) back at their befitting strata of intellectual beings, and also as the ones with deserving respect between one another. Apparently WhatsApp is ignoring this, consciously or not.

This thinking, of course, requires us to transcend beyond the common user’s paradigm, and question things from developer’s perspective. Anyone with natural instincts though, untarnished by the ‘accepted norms’ of WhatsApp-is-fine, will surely appreciate this very suggestion. As without this, we will continue being a pseudo-modern society with everything tech yet bereft of civilised mutual respect, making us no more superior than apes with high tech toys.

Now…

At this point it is fair to stop by and ask — Is this really about what is wrong with WhatsApp itself, or is it faulty human factor causing communication breakdown? Apparently human factor is everywhere in these three basis of (my) rejection, isn’t it?

Should we now absolve WhatsApp totally from this accusation?

(Continue with Part 4)


Side note 3 — Apart from not making ‘add-to-group’ action as a more respectable invite, WhatsApp developers did somehow commit to some nice steps. To mention three of them, they do not allow games or other gimmicks in the app; they do not keep your chat history in their server; and with good public acceptance, they did not have to spent even a penny on advertising the app. That is pretty nice.

Read also — Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Finale

Reference:

  1. Charles Abram Ellwood. Sociology and Modern Social Problems (iBooks). United States: Public Domain; 1945. Available from: https://itun.es/us/GBH5D.l
  2. Apple Inc. iOS Human Interface Design (iBooks). United States: Apple Inc; 2014. Available from: https://itun.es/us/pyfv0.l