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Spotlight on WhatsApp: the Rise and Fall of Digital Platforms

Originally posted on Social Day Live | 10 February 2021

The rules are well understood. To create a world-class digital platform, you need to understand what the users need, develop an awesome user interface, build a loyal base of customers - fast - and keep them happy. Then use your scale to keep innovating, and adding new features users want before the competition turns up.

WhatsApp looked like a textbook case in the world of messaging platforms. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp back in February 2014 for a USD 19 billion indicated that WhatsApp’s founders had done an excellent job designing and building a platform winner. This piece in BuzzFeed shows WhatsApp was sending 8.2 billion messages a day, compared with Facebook Messenger’s 3.5 billion on mobile. Mmm. WhatsApp was a potential Facebook killer: both in terms of usage and engagement time, and Facebook’s cheque book removed the threat.

Fast forward seven years. WhatsApp has over two billion users in over 180 countries, providing quick and easy set-up of groups for one-off events, or longer-term community building, and offered end-to-end encryption for personal and business messages. Or so we thought.

This Message Raised Alarm

This message raised alarm among the 10 WhatsApp groups I’ve set up in recent months to share digital transformation articles, videos, white papers and case studies with our network of professionals as they build their digital skills.

It’s evident that many members in our WhatsApp community - myself included - have serious doubts about data privacy. End-to-end encryption? Facebook’s recent decision to revise its terms and conditions raises questions about how much data we are sharing with the platform:

It comes as no surprise that millions are leaving WhatsApp, and finding alternative messaging platforms. We’ve become accustomed to the hyper-targeted ads on Facebook and Instagram, which continue to generate billions in revenues. Many of us have already fled these platforms. Somehow we thought WhatsApp would be treated differently. In hindsight, that was misfounded. Here are the ‘3 superb reasons’ to quit WhatsApp in 2021, according to Forbes.

The competition cycle is fascinating: we’re actively testing out Zuckerberg-free alternatives and will see whether the user interface and functionality stand up to scrutiny.

Here are the obvious choices in our migration from WhatsApp. Needless to say, migration from WhatsApp will be a hassle for hundreds of our members across five continents. And there's a degree of risk: after all, will the trust we all had in WhatsApp (aka Facebook) be honoured by the new platform operator?

Based on the feedback and dialogue in our existing WhatsApp group chat, the time has come to move on.

The lesson is clear and simple: privacy protection is one of the defining issues of the digital age. If you collect any data on your customer or users, there is a duty and responsibility to protect and safeguard that information.

As is the case in so many walks of life, trust and reputation are hard earned, and can be lost immediately. WhatsApp’s fall from favour will add renewed calls for the regulators to sharpen their teeth and protect data privacy. This will open the door for more choice. And for those of us working in digital transformation, we have an excellent case study on the rise and fall of digital platforms.

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