Remember when Twitter was everything? It’s still got more than 320 million monthly active users, but it’s no longer the hot social media platform. While Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram continued to grow between 2012 and 2015, Twitter stagnated starting in 2014 (Pew Research Center).
I recently heard a colleague describe Twitter as a kind of “echo chamber,” for journalists, pundits, news junkies and assorted fans of assorted sports teams and pop culture icons.
When I spent six months in Belize last year, I began using WhatsApp to send free messages and make free phone calls to family and friends in the U.S. I also found that Belizeans use WhatsApp quite heavily to message and talk to each other within the country.
If you are unfamiliar with WhatsApp, here are the basics:
- WhatsApp allows smartphone users to exchange text, image, video and audio messages for free
- WhatsApp uses the internet to send messages, so the cost is significantly less than texting
- It has 1.2 billion monthly active users in 180 countries.
So, now you’re asking: How does WhatsApp, which sounds like a utility, qualify as a social media platform? How do people get news from such an app?
Percentage of people using each service at least once a week
Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017
While in Belize, I was invited to join a WhatsApp group called Newz@Ur Finga Tipz. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was intrigued. Soon, I saw that the curators and users of the group were sharing details about car accidents, severe weather (flooding and tropical storm activity especially), missing persons, and other tidbits that you might normally expect news outlets to report.
In Belize, where newsrooms are not always staffed to keep ahead of breaking and developing news (especially on weekends), Newz@Ur Finga Tipz was delivering information in a timely fashion to a group of “subscribers,” if you will. There were rumors bandied about, but the group’s curators and members took pains to debunk and/or confirm and then spread the news.
My job in Belize involved public relations and marketing for the nation’s leading cultural and historical institutions, including the Maya archaeological sites around the country that provide employment for Belizeans and draw tourists and researchers in (for Belize) huge numbers.
In the wake of August 2016’s Hurricane Earl, I jumped on Newz@Ur Finga Tipz as one channel for providing updates on which archaeological sites were closed due to storm damage, and which other venues (e.g. the Museum of Belize and Bliss Center for the Performing Arts) had been affected by the hurricane.
In Belize, WhatsApp is free way to inform and communicate, but the platform is even more widely used for sharing news and views in other countries–countries where tweeting or posting a news item could get you into trouble with government officials, religious authorities and others with the power to make lives uncomfortable.
Just take a read about how China has WhatsApp in its censorship sights.
WhatsApp is private. So, as long as you know and trust people you connect with, it’s a safe means for connecting.
For its latest Digital News Report, the Reuters Institute For The Study of Journalism worked with YouGov to survey people in across Europe, the Americas and Asia. The study was sponsored by the BBC and Google among others. A total of 71,805 people were questioned in January and February to generate the data.
- Facebook is still the most popular social media and messaging service for news engagement in all but two countries – Japan and South Korea – where, respectively, YouTube and Kakao Talk dominate.
- Sharing news stories and chatting about them appears to be on the rise within private instant messaging apps, and WhatsApp in particular.
- WhatsApp is now the second most popular social service for news in nine of the 36 locations, and the third most popular platform in a further five countries.
“Some of the biggest growth we’ve seen is in places like Turkey, where it’s positively dangerous for people to express anti-government preferences on open networks like Facebook…. As a result people are using closed groups where they are more confident of expressing their views.” — Nic Newman, Digital News Report
Another attractive quality of WhatsApp is that content is not selected by journalists. The gatekeepers are WhatsApp users. According to a BBC article about the Digital News Report, some news organizations are trying to jump on the WhatsApp bandwagon (of course), but: “….part of WhatsApp’s appeal is that users don’t get interrupted by brands, making it a very pure form of messaging. That’s something [its developers] will really try to hold to.”
Here’s a look at WhatsApp usage in many countries (Percentage of YouGov respondents who report using WhatsApp on a weekly basis)
Source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017
The Digital News Report survey did not include Africa (which is odd), but guess what? WhatsApp is huge there.
Facebook and WhatsApp
Wondering how Facebook feels about the rise of WhatsApp? The world’s dominant social network acquired the hot, new upstart in 2014. Now, naturally, Facebook is looking to monetize the app, so it will be interesting to see how that works out–given that WhatsApp users may be flocking to the service because it’s devoid of advertising and other money-making features.