I was among the first of the WhatsApp deserters who jumped overboard to swim to that distant shore of data privacy. I had already been using Signal for a couple of years or so. But it was Telegram that I’d set my sights on because it was the closest thing to WhatsApp from this user’s perspective. And man, did I love WhatsApp.
Here’s My Backstory
I live in India, where prior to the WhatsApp shakeup, there were some 400 million WhatsApp users by 2019, and by 2020, the average user in India was spending 21.3 hours on the app. You could have probably placed me somewhere snuggly into that 20 hours per month usage bracket. I was checking the app constantly throughout my day for both work and personal reasons. People around me were on it constantly. If you walked into any cafe or passed by a busy tea stall in India, chances were (and still are) that you’d see that ubiquitous-and-at-once-recognizable green app glowing like a disco floor among a herd of grazing smartphones.
I was into WhatsApp so deep that I didn’t even know how deep the time-sink went. It’s not that I didn’t suspect that it had become an addiction of sorts. But what could I do? Everyone used it here, everyone would ask for your WhatsApp as opposed to the Age of Before when “what’s your number?” was the go-to line. There were WhatsApp conversations, where details were stored from any number of sources. For me, this included boarding passes, accountant discussions (taxes, etc.), casual conversations that had hundreds of lines to a thread, and as a photographer, dozens of “random” people who’d I’d met throughout my street photography sessions in Mumbai and in India generally.
The bottom line is, if you’re a functioning human being in India, then you have a smartphone. And if you’re a functioning smartphone user, then you use WhatsApp. End of story.
WhatsApp is Completely and Utterly Incapable of Shutting-the-Fuck-Up
I think any casual WhatsApp user would agree with this sentiment. This is a problem, a long-term problem, the way I see it. WhatsApp users are always on-call. When your friend, family member, work acquaintance, or a complete stranger, ‘WhatsApp you’, you are expected to reply in a timely manner. Once everyone important (and unimportant) have your WhatsApp, this nuclear megaphone never shuts up. It’s always barking! You can silence it, sure, but you can’t completely muzzle it. If you’re a regular user then you’re expected to uphold at least a semblance of WhatsApp etiquette and check the damned thing at least 40 or 50 times a day — at minimum. Bare minimum. For some, this is an hourly figure. Forget about the stat that the average user checks WhatsApp more than 23 times per day. The “more than” applies comfortably to the average Indian (and India resident) user.
At the risk of beating a cliche and movie over the head and to a bloody pulp, I see very little difference between uninstalling WhatsApp and Neo being unplugged from the Matrix. That’s how engrained WhatsApp is on users in India; it’s attached to us, pipes and electrodes and wires and what-nots, all rammed up our orifices like a soiree of by-invite-only vampires. I could go on with the analogies but let’s just say for sake of time (because I know you’ve got to check your WhatsApp by now!) that if Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” in 2020 that he would have written it for WhatsApp. At least, that’s what the Onion’s tell-all interview headline would have read.
Life Without WhatsApp
WhatsApp users, do you remember those days? Can you remember those days? I believe this safely falls into one of those “life before the Internet” conversations where we all reminisce about those innocent and carefree times. I for one, don’t remember those days. But I’m figuring out how to go about it once again since I’ve literally gained 20 hours or more per month of my time back, read as “life.”
Forget about data privacy concerns. I really have my doubts that so many millions of people across the planet are ditching WhatsApp in favor of other apps simply because of concern for their digital privacy. There are really only two reasons for this behavior; one will be the given reason, the socially-acceptable, logical and sane reason: “I don’t want WhatsApp sharing my details with Facebook and the Invisible Cadre of Third Party Minions — including global intelligence services — looking to vulture-over, analyze, categorize, disseminate, and store ‘every move I make, every vow I break’, just because I enjoy the “free” services of a black hole-like, light-sucking (read as life-sucking) app.”
I suspect, that is, I theorize, that the current WhatsApp-ditching crazy is more fundamental than concerns about privacy. It’s more about being free. It’s about being released from the chains of total dystopic, social immersion. It’s about not being tethered — regardless of the Ten-Billionfold Tetherings of Ten-Billion Apps and Misc. Smartphone Distractions we’re already tethered to and unlikely to be free from any time soon — just to fucking breathe once again without associating the act in lieu of checking the green Incredible Hulk known as WhatsApp. It’s about taking a break. It’s about breathing in and out, yoga fans. It’s about avoiding carving “Brooks was here” into our smartphone’s worn-out and tired, faux-leather cover.
Because let’s face it, out of all these tens of millions of users ditching WhatsApp, there’s bound to be an equal and opposite reaction at some point if WhatsApp survives the onslaught. Not everyone is going to care for Signal, Telegram, and whatever other alternatives that currently exist in the Great Green Shadow’s wake. Millions of users will likely return to WhatsApp. Even more dastardly of a possibility is that for those of us who resist the temptation, our new privacy-app-of-choice could become our next pair of handcuffs. Because let’s face the music on this one, we’ve already been conditioned by WhatsApp to give our 20+ hours per month to it.
But for now, I’m running free. I’m running like a free man, happy, oh-so-happy, and free! While I receive constant notifications about all of my contacts who are joining Telegram and Signal (settings aside, how is this privacy at all?), I’m spending very little time on Telegram and Signal. I don’t have dozens of small chitchats and dealings on either app at present. I presume this will change when all my contacts either make the Big Switch or finally figure out that the single check on WhatsApp means that the message was sent but I didn’t receive it, and to try to reach me some other way…like in the Before Times, when a myriad of inconvenient choices existed like email, Facebook messaging, Twitter DMs, SMS, Instagram, Zoom, and the good old fashion phone call.
Those were the goddamned days, my friend.
Story & image by Craig Boehman