A few days ago Whatsapp renamed the status page to “Updates” and introduced the “Channels” feature. And suddenly, the messenger I use to communicate with friends and family shows me recommendations for profiles of people and corporations I don’t know and don’t want to hear from. I don’t like it.
We already know the channels feature from Telegram, where they are used by conspiracy theorists, covid deniers and straight up right-wing extremists to reach their followers. And probably by some normal people who just want to connect with other people as well, the world isn’t just black and white, good and evil after all.
And of course Meta thought, we need to have this feature as well! Even if it has the potential to be just as problematic as the channels on Telegram (and maybe even more so, because Whatsapp has a much broader user base, at least here in Germany). But Facebook is no stranger to their plattform causing social unrest, to put it mildly, and what’s the worst that could happen?
Anyway, for a few days now I’ve been finding recommendations in my Whatsapp app (yes) to follow the channels of various football clubs, influencers and corporations.
Do I want this? No.
Can I turn it off? No.
Is this going to get more intrusive and aggressive as time moves on? You bet!
And with that, the enshittification of Whatsapp is in full swing.
What is enshittification? The term was coined by Cory Doctorow, he uses it to describe the seemingly inevitable decline of well-liked platforms:
Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.
I call this enshittification […]
The latest victim of this process (from my own personal point of view) is Whatsapp, but for me, they were already on my “shitlist” anyway, on the one hand because of the unbearable behavior of Facebook, which by now fills entire books, and on the other hand because they have been announcing for years now that ads will be shown in Whatsapp at some point. So it was only a matter of time before it happened.
But this made me think about the past… in my last post I wrote a bit about my favorite messenger from the old days, ICQ.
ICQ was great, had a simple interface, you could use it to chat with your friends and that was it.
In the beginning yes, the interfaces of the early ICQ versions were simple and functional. Contact list, chat window for each contact, that’s it.
ICQ started in 1996 as a product of a small Israeli startup called Mirabilis, but already in 1998 it was acquired by one of the largest corporations at the time, AOL. At first, the messenger remained simple and limited to its core functionality, but since the early 2000s, the interface became increasingly (and annoyingly) colorful with more and more unnccessary bling and useless features, ads, online games, etc., until the app was virtually unusable and users migrated to other platforms. I remember using third-party apps for a while to retain the simple and unintrusive interface of the past. ICQ was eventually sold on to a Russian company and continues to exist in Russia to this day.
And somehow the story of Whatsapp looks very similar. It was founded by a small startup and then taken over by a huge tech company for an insane amount of money. At first, the app remained pretty much as it was and even got some useful features (end-to-end encryption, for instance), but for some time now Meta has been dedicating more resources to “developing” the platform, and the user experience has been getting worse and worse (again, in my personal opinion).
And that leaves me wondering, is this process inevitable? Does this happen to all popular platforms at some point? And what can we, the users, do about it?
Of course I can now leave Whatsapp and migrate to Signal or Threema, both of which I already use and both of which are still quite “simple” and focus on their core functionalities, but will it stay that way? Who can guarantee that the companies running these platforms won’t decide tomorrow or next week or next year to serve me ads or to push some profiles in my face that I don’t want to see? And then, what’s next?
Are we doomed to migrate from platform to platform for the rest of our lives because everything will eventually go to the shit and become an unusable mess because of feature creep and enshittification?
At the moment, I don’t have an answer to these questions.
Post 007/100 of the 100DaysToOffload Challenge
This is a translation of the original German post made by DeepL and then manually adapted to (hopefully) sound a bit more human