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Why have Americans turned a cold shoulder to messaging giant WhatsApp?

It had an estimated 1.5 billion monthly users worldwide as of 2017. It’s been banned in China, where the government issued a copycat app, WeChat. When authoritarian regimes crack down on popular protests, it is often one of the first social media apps to go dark. It has 400 million monthly users in India alone, where users say it is simply the way people communicate. It’s hugely popular in Europe and the Middle East as well.

And yet a question remains: Why is WhatsApp practically unknown in the U.S., the world’s largest economy? Why is WhatsApp not also “the default” for messaging, as it is elsewhere in the world? The answer, it seems, is a complicated cocktail of worldwide telecommunication development mixed with American travel habits. Or rather, the lack thereof.

screenshot of what's app on a smart phone
Last year, Whatsapp announced limits on the forwarding of messages by its Indian users in an effort to stop a spate of horrific lynchings and to assuage government threats of legal action in its biggest market. Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

WhatsApp launched in 2009 in California, built by software engineers Brian Acton and Jan Koum. It grew in popularity so swiftly that Facebook bought it in 2014 for a cool $19 billion; this is still Facebook’s largest acquisition to date, and one of the largest in tech acquisitions history — significantly more than the $1 billion it spent to buy Instagram. (Acton has since gone on to found Signal, a more secure, less corporate, less UI-friendly version of WhatsApp.)

A Pew survey conducted at the end of 2018 of adult social media use in 11 different emerging economies found that Facebook and WhatsApp were by far the most popular messaging apps, above Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, and Viber.

Yet its user numbers in the U.S. are markedly lower than in comparable population sizes. WhatsApp, via Facebook, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Facebook’s third-quarter revenue numbers do not separate WhatsApp users out from the general Facebook product-using populace.

But according to the Pew Research Center, the number of adults using Facebook plateaued in 2018, and WhatsApp user number decreased: Only 20% of U.S. adults use WhatsApp in 2019, down from 22% in 2018. This is vastly smaller than the 73% who use YouTube, and the 69% who use Facebook. The only social media network that was less popular in the U.S. was Reddit.

“There are some people who use WhatsApp and love it, and then there are people who who are like, ‘okay, what is this?’”

“It is surprising,” said Sree Sreenivasan, Marshall Loeb visiting professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism, speaking of the general American ignorance of WhatsApp. Sreenivasan runs seminars where he teaches journalists tips and tricks for how to use various social media platforms, including WhatsApp. “There are some people who use WhatsApp and love it, and then there are people who who are like, ‘OK, what is this?’” he told Digital Trends.

India: WhatsApp is a way of life

“WhatsApp is the default way of reaching out to most people here,” Pranav Dixit, a Delhi-based tech reporter for Buzzfeed News, told Digital Trends. “It’s definitely a huge part of my everyday life.”

Dixit has experienced this cultural gap in messaging services firsthand. He was an intern at Wired in San Francisco in 2014, and was in the office the day Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp was announced. “I had been using WhatsApp for a few years, because it was the default app for most Indians,” he said. Dixit recalled the morning of the announcement when he thought, “Holy [expletive], this is huge!”

WhatsApp in India
An Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. Prakash Singh / Getty Images

“Everyone in the Wired office was like, ‘wtf is WhatsApp.’ And I thought, ‘You work at a top tech magazine and you’re asking me, the intern, what’s WhatsApp?’” he said with a laugh.

American telecommunications developed differently than Indian telecom — or really, telecom anywhere else in the world. When texting began to become popular, it was prohibitively expensive for most people in the world. Dixit said that before WhatsApp came along in India, most Indians had to buy what were called “SMS packs”: a user would pay a certain amount of money to send a certain number of text messages. But these cost too much money for a lot of Indians, Dixit said, especially around the holidays when carriers would up the price of SMSs (by contrast, Sreenivasan said, most Americans don’t really know what the word SMS — short message service means).

“The carriers in India were essentially ripping people off,” he said. Then came WhatsApp, just around the same time in 2010 as when 3G was coming to India and a few years after iPhones were starting to penetrate the Indian market. “The concept of all-you-eat-messaging over 3G was quite revolutionary,” Dixit said. “For a country that was used to paying per text message, just being able to go back and forth as much as you wanted was amazing.”

Today, WhatsApp is how Dixit gets spammed with press releases, how he reaches out to sources for stories, even how people in India make dinner reservations or book tickets to a show. Dixit said he doesn’t even know where the default text message app for his phone is anymore.

Americans don’t travel

According to Pew Research, the app is most popular in the United States among the Hispanic community, which speaks to one popular aspect of WhatsApp: its internationality.

WhatsApp fills a key role in international texting, something that Americans do less of than people from other countries. That may tie into travel habits, which are strikingly different for Americans than for other countries. For a variety of socioeconomic reasons, Americans don’t travel abroad at the same rates of other comparable countries: According to Forbes, only 42% of Americans have a passport, far behind the 66% of Canadians and 76% of Britons and Welsh people.

In addition, American telecoms didn’t take the same path that countries like India went down. “One of the reasons why the U.S. never got into messaging services that are popular in other places is that two things work really well here: texting and Messenger,” said Sreenivasan, referring to both the iMessage and Facebook Messenger apps. “Texting was an expensive proposition in other parts of the world. But people here [in the U.S.] don’t see the need for another platform.”

The U.S. has always been an outlier when it comes to messaging: In the days when most of the world was using ICQ or MSN to chat online, Americans were using AIM. Americans stuck with desktop computing, and AIM turned into Gchat, which turned into Facebook Messenger.

“Texting did not take off in America until very late, because phone calls worked so well, and the internet was so cheap,” Sreenivasan said.

Whereas, according to Dixit, places like India basically leapfrogged desktop computing and went directly to mobile. Even when Americans started to text on smartphones, Apple headed it off by developing iMessage, rendering the need for WhatsApp moot.

Functionally, WhatsApp isn’t much different than something like iMessage: Both are encrypted, both send texts for free internationally, and both have started to incorporate functions like fun stickers and forwarding. But the popularity of WhatsApp makes it an important tool.

“When I say ‘WhatsApp,’ half the time American journalists don’t know what this is,” Sreenivasan said. “It’s disappointing.”

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Maya Shwayder
I'm a multimedia journalist currently based in New England. I previously worked for DW News/Deutsche Welle as an anchor and…
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