Before WhatsApp went dark yesterday, the last messages I sent were to my editor in London, my doctor here in Mexico City, and to the family group chat, asking whether my father—recovering from COVID-19 back home in Pakistan—had finally tested negative. For me, WhatsApp is as much a verb as Google, and the platform is the engine that fuels my personal and professional lives. Sometimes, despite being thousands of miles away from my family, my WhatsApp groups seem like the rooms of my childhood house: Here is my mother in one corner, fretting over my father’s cavalier attitude toward the pandemic; here is an uncle nobody likes, talking about some secret conspiracy against Islam; here are my cousins sending voice notes laced with laughter, virtually re-creating a summer sleepover; here is my grandmother, reminding me to pray.
For about five hours, as the Facebook empire—including Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp—experienced a global outage, that engine sputtered to a stop for me and billions of others. For lots of people in the U.S., the outage merely stopped them from posting food photos on Instagram and instigating mask arguments on Facebook. But it meant something else in the large swaths of the developing world. Here, WhatsApp is more than just “social media”: It’s a public utility.
I first downloaded the app when I moved away for college in 2008, six years before it was acquired by Facebook, for a whopping $19 billion. At the time, it operated on a subscription model: In some countries, it cost roughly $1 to download, equivalent to the cost of a handful of international text messages. For a homesick student contemplating candy and canned beans for dinner every other night, it was a pretty good deal. Today, not only is the service entirely free, but telecom companies in many countries offer data bundles that include WhatsApp and Facebook at little or no added cost, partly made possible through a controversial Facebook initiative known as Free Basics. Texting and calling is a lot more costly: Sending an SMS in 2015 was 22 times more expensive in India than in the United States; in Brazil, it was 55 times as expensive. These disparities have helped fuel WhatsApp’s rise in many countries. According to one estimate, nearly 500 million Indians use the platform.
Even before the outage, Facebook was facing growing scrutiny over misinformation and lawsuits accusing the company of being a monopoly. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that the company has internal research suggesting that Instagram is toxic for girls’ mental health. WhatsApp has lots of its own problems, but it doesn’t take much squinting to see the app as perhaps the closest realization of Big Tech’s proclamation of technology as a force for good in the global South.
When WhatsApp first introduced voice calls in 2015, my father waxed lyrical about modern technology: Gone were the days of the eye-wateringly expensive international phone calls. A man who for years physically gravitated toward the landline while talking on a cellphone, as if the connection was somehow stronger there, he has embraced WhatsApp with uncharacteristic gusto—in fact, sometimes I fear he may be dangerously close to becoming a “WhatsApp Uncle.” WhatsApp’s popularity over other Facebook-owned apps in certain countries may have to do with its interface: It feels like less of a bully pulpit than Facebook, more intuitive than Messenger, and less exhibitionistic than Instagram. It is friendlier to people who don’t find it easy to type or can’t read or write at all; entire conversations can be conducted solely through voice notes.
Most importantly though, WhatsApp was built for the mobile phone. In the developing world in particular, users are less likely to have come to it with a preconceived notion of the internet being accessed through, say, a website on a desktop. For a lot of them, their smartphone was their first computer and WhatsApp is the internet. Two years ago, when the Lebanese government proposed a $6 monthly tax on WhatsApp, protests erupted in Beirut, forcing officials to roll back the plan hours later.
In both of the cities that I now call home, Karachi and Mexico City, countless small businesses operate entirely on WhatsApp. On billboards and flyers, it is common to find a WhatsApp number listed as the primary contact information. Customer complaints for essential services like electricity are routed through the app; small newspapers, pushed out of print, disseminate news through it; activists, such as the khwaja sirah trans community in Pakistan, use it to coordinate protests and keep others safe from harassment. All these activities were disrupted, though so were some more unsavory ones: The platform, like so many others, has a misinformation and hate-speech problem.
There’s no need to overstate the disruption. Karachi, on the other side of the world, was asleep during most of the outage. Anyway, the city is no stranger to internet shutdowns. Still, the fact that a single app is the scaffolding for the digital lives of 2 billion active users is troubling, not least because it is controlled by a private company. In January, when the app updated its terms and conditions, stating that users allow it to share their data with its parent company, Facebook, there was a huge outcry. Like many other people, I also downloaded more secure apps, such as Telegram and Signal. But letting go of WhatsApp has been difficult, primarily because everyone uses it.
And so I waited patiently until the afternoon, when the app switched back on. A little while later, my father messaged. He had in fact tested negative and was off to work. Other rooms flickered to life, too, one ping at a time: my doctor confirming an appointment, my friend complaining about journalism school, and a muffled voice note from a great-uncle. I’ve never been so thankful to get a butt dial.