How WhatsApp replaced SMS?

Hey, this is a research case study on WhatsApp, how it enabled text communication, introduced feedback systems and added personal touch to text communication.

Image by https://unsplash.com/@_giri_

What is WhatsApp?

WhatsApp is a cross-platform instant messenger, enables people to send text, voice messages, make video/voice calls and share images, videos, documents & location. Cross-platform means that WhatsApp is available on iOS, android and windows. It is primarily used to communicate with your contacts and recently, Whatsapp introduced Business accounts for people looking to grow or switch to the digital medium of doing business.

In the case study I’ll take you through how Whatsapp is used by my family, how the usage changes with age and why is that? How WhatsApp became the default text communication platform for India?

Short-history of text communication

In 1961, MIT’s computation centre built the CTSS, system which enabled the communication over text messages. In 1985, America Online (AOL) created the online service for sharing files, games, enabled messaging among a group of people and ended up becoming the leading internet service provider in the United States.

Initially, with an increase in the number of people using smartphones, SMS dominated the text communication medium but after 2013, platforms which used internet data and introduced different use cases lead the path, for eg, Snapchat was created for communicating with images, recently Honk (a new messaging platform for iOS) is based on real-time text communication.

Why WhatsApp?

Why do we use Whatsapp as a primary internet communication platform? Here are some of the reasons I found:

  1. To use Whatsapp, it requires the person’s contact number, which is used a lot in India
  2. Uses very less internet data unlike SMS which is used for text communication without internet data
  3. Shows the state of the message (sent, received, read) and the availability of the person at the time (last seen), enabled feedback in a very small area but had a very large impact
  4. This is something that might not be noticed while using different communication platforms but everyone has a different feel and goals for the communication. Whatsapp brings a very personal & home feel. Gmail, Hangouts, iMessage, etc, have work-related vibes. It also has this feature where you can change your background image for the chat room, which makes it really personal. It doesn’t use blue or vibrant colours for messages, but very subtle white and green.

How did we get to know about WhatsApp?

Most of us got to know about WhatsApp through ads highlighting its “Last seen” feature where you could see when the contact was last online on WhatsApp & through word of mouth “bruh? aren’t you on WhatsApp???”. Features like “last seen” & “state of the message — sent, delivered, read”, worked like seeing through a wall, literally magic! (aha moments of the product).

With internet messengers every single urge to know what’s happening on the other side is solved, we get to see different states of every message, is the person is online or not (sometimes even their last seen), if they’re typing the message or not.

In SMS, this pop-up meant that the message has been sent

When & How do we use it?

Channels

Let’s first see what are the different ways to have a conversation on WhatsApp, what they put more emphasis on?

Conversations over text happens in 2 ways:

  • 1:1 Conversations — When you’re talking to one contact, this could be when they’re online (Synchronous), or when they’re not (asynchronous).
  • 1:n Conversations — When you’re talking to a group of people.

Conversations and media shared remain here forever (there’s no time limit) unless deleted by any of the contacts involved.

On a Status, people post updates, announcements, recommendations which could be in a format of text, image, audio, video. It is a 1:n and an asynchronous channel for sharing something with your contacts.

Status only remains for 24hr duration, so people generally post something that is related to the current date (festivals, birthdays, news, congratulations, countdowns, etc) and might not be relevant a week after (posting updates for the current travelling scenes, something urgent, etc). Also, in status, your contacts can reply so generally people who are open for having conversations post them.

Video/Voice calls can happen in two ways, with only one contact or with multiple contacts (in a group). Another way to see video/voice calls is that these are synchronous voice messages. These are always synchronous and conversations are not available to look back to unless recorded through other applications.

How my family is using it? Why does the difference between the usage occur?

Kushal(me)

age -19

  • I started off to get updates from groups that everyone around me (mostly friends) were a part of. For e.g., class group, football club group, coaching group in 12th class (they used to update us on the classes through WhatsApp, for those who don’t use WhatsApp they would send SMS). Currently, links for the class that is currently happening are also shared.
  • One thing that’s very common among college groups is the forwarded messages about upcoming events, fests, etc. One reason behind this is also it takes only 2 taps for registering through WhatsApp, from Instagram if someone has shared it takes 2–4 taps to find the link first.

Rita

age-49, relation-Mother

  • She’s from Haryana (state in India). My mother is a homemaker, watches Tarak Mehta ka Ulta Chashma a lot, in the morning its News so that she doesn’t miss anything that happened yesterday.
  • She doesn’t use WhatsApp at all, very rarely she actually uses it by herself. It is only there because most of her friends and people in the neighbourhood are on it. It is used to send updates to our milkman sometimes, screenshots of payments to shopkeepers (Kirana stores) & sometimes when someone has shared some contact with her and it needs to be saved in the contact list.
  • Most of the times whenever someone texts her, either we (me or my sisters) reply or she directly calls the person, without texting the reply. She love’s seeing the new updates posted by her friends, new display pictures, status, etc.

Reasons behind this behavior:

  • Conversations throughout her life has happened directly talking to the person or on-call, no waiting time for the reply
  • Doesn’t know how to use digital keyboard, requires very precise taps on the screen
  • The language barrier, we often use a mix of Hindi and English while talking to friends but our parents have never typed that language. They would either type only Hindi or only English.

Radhey Shyam

age-54, relation-Father

My father is from Haryana too. He’s currently serving for Indian government in BSF.

  • Takes forwarded links, information very seriously. Unlike us who first confirm it with reliable sources.
  • Conversations only in English because he don’t know how to enable or install Hindi keyboard.
  • Doesn’t likes to convey the message in multiple messages, reviews the entire message before sending it (behaviour from writing letter and emails).
  • Most of the use is to have video calls with family, send & receive work-related documents, contacts, images, etc.
  • Have never used emojis, I think this is because they have never communicated feelings over a text or visual format. If by any chance handwritten letters had a way of including emotions in them (while they were being wrote), our parents would have been masters in using digital emojis.

What is “Forward”?

Most of the social platforms have “Share” as one of the ways to increase the reach of the message, whether it is in the image or video format. WhatsApp does this with one of its features that has created a lot of miss-information in the media, with “Forward” a message (can be with multiple formats such as text-video, text-image, text-audio) can be forwarded to multiple contacts at a time.

With Instagram and other platforms, we end the chain of sharing by either just liking or commenting on the post but with WhatApp it becomes a never-ending chain of supporters for the message.

Some of the usage patterns I have oberved:

  • WhatsApp prioritizes more on conversations between communities/groups because our social interactions do not always happen with one person, but mostly with a group of people. Yesterday (14th Jan), I had conversations with 2 of my contacts and in 1 group, it is definitely working and useful.
  • Whatsapp over Instagram chats — Instagram is a content creating, consuming and sharing platform. Instagram chats work like a feature to make that easier (sharing & consumption) and not to include any other apps in between. Most of the conversations of Instagram start due to some shared post, story reply, etc. On the other side, we use WhatsApp only when there’s a message sent by someone or when we want to have a conversation with someone just like phone calls, you only use it when you receive a call or when you call someone.
  • I have also used and seen people using it for taking short notes/tasks.
    How I did that? Make a group of two people and remove the other person. Now you’re the only person in the group, messages that you send are only going to be there for you. Works like a note-taking app.

Conclusion

  • WhatsApp observed our by-default behaviors and converted them in digital medium to enable scale. For ex, “Groups” came from communities, “Forward” came because we were already sharing what we got to know about something.
  • “Forward” is one of the very small features but had a very large impact on media. Instead of just calling it “Share” they researched more and gave it a very long-lasting personal touch.
  • They made communication really fast, affordable by running on very less internet data (as the average internet speed in India is 12.07 Mbps which very less than the global average of 35.26 Mbps).
  • Used phone numbers rather than email Id’s, because before email everyone had phone numbers for communication. Not everyone has an email address due to its different use case and India has 1.2 billion telephone numbers and only 317 Gmail users (number of emails is likely to be greater as average email id’s per person is less than 2).
  • Understood the need for a low cost instant messaging platform, I remember when people used to get packs for 200 messages per day. After the limit people have to wait for the next day. WhatsApp removed the limit to the number of messages.

Thank you, I hope you enjoyed it. Let me know what I could have done better, every feedback is important🙏.

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