viernes, diciembre 18, 2020


Why WhatsApp matters

By Shira Ovide

WhatsApp is being remodeled in front of our eyes. 

Watch what happens because even if you don’t use the messaging app, the changes could reshape the direction of the internet.

Perhaps never before has an online property been so popular and made such little money. 

More than two billion people worldwide use WhatsApp regularly to text or make phone calls, but it scarcely generates any money for Facebook, which has owned WhatsApp since 2014.

That’s because WhatsApp is mostly a personal communications app, and Facebook doesn’t make money from that group chat with your cousins. 

This looks set to change. 

Haltingly, including by agreeing to buy a customer service start-up on Monday, Facebook is trying to use its trademark playbook to remake WhatsApp into an inescapable way for businesses to interact with us.

If Facebook figures it out, WhatsApp could change how we shop and use the internet forever — as the company’s main social network and Instagram did. If not, Facebook will own a spectacularly popular failure. 

The outcome will set trends for our digital lives and determine which businesses thrive or don’t.

To understand WhatsApp, you need to know about Facebook’s three-step playbook and why it’s breaking down.

First, Facebook makes a nice space for people to hang out with one another. That was the original Facebook social network, then it bought spots like Instagram and WhatsApp.

Once lots of people are there and comfy, Facebook lets businesses in to mingle with people and maybe try to sell running shoes or bedsheets. 

Step three, the company finds ways to make those businesses pay to reach people. 

That’s the ticket to riches.

With its main social network and Instagram, businesses pay Facebook by buying ads. 

Facebook’s other messaging app, Messenger, has started down this path, too. 

But Facebook has decided that advertisements probably aren’t the way to go for WhatsApp. And it doesn’t exactly know what else to do when it has to deviate from its three-step plan.

The first two steps have gone swimmingly with WhatsApp. The app isn’t widely used in the United States, but in many countries it’s the go-to way to stay in touch with friends and family. 

And businesses are using WhatsApp to take product orders or respond to customer questions.

It’s just that Facebook hasn’t quite figured out how to hone these habits, refine them, spread them to more companies and make money from it. 

That third step is tricky. 

It’s heartening, really, to see the big and mighty Facebook fumbling in the dark a little.

With the planned purchase of Kustomer, a (ridiculously named) start-up that helps businesses do customer service by chat apps, you can see that Facebook wants WhatsApp to be a version of customer call centers. 

It’s also trying to make WhatsApp a 21st-century Sears catalog, or maybe a digital currency.

It all seems plausible. 

Sure, WhatsApp could be the best forum for airlines to rebook your flights and for you to check out Levi’s jeans and buy a pair in the chat app. 

WhatsApp could be the only online presence for many companies. Or maybe none of this will catch on widely. I don’t know, and maybe for the first time in its history, Facebook doesn’t know, either.

The direction of WhatsApp matters because it’s about us.

Think about how Facebook and Instagram changed how many of us interact with one another and find information, influenced how businesses get us interested in their products and maybe rewired our brains.

WhatsApp is that all over again, but potentially more profound because the app is most popular in countries where internet habits are relatively new. 

WhatsApp in India could change the entire retail industry in ways we can’t imagine. 

It could influence how governments plan their currencies.

Or, again, WhatsApp could stay wildly popular but never fulfill the hopes Facebook has for it. 

I’m not sure which outcome we want, but I’ll be paying close attention either way. 

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