Barely two minutes after my phone awoke from sleep (it automatically gets eight hours a night; I should be so lucky), the first notification of the day comes through. It’s from the group I’m in for my daughter’s form. I debate whether or not to press mute and decide not to. It’s 7:02 and my first WhatsApp of the day has come in.
It’s a safe bet to assume you know what I’m talking about; with around 2.5 billion monthly active users, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging platform in the world by some distance. Like all ubiquitous technologies, it is now a verb (“I’ll WhatsApp you.”) and yes, even my technophobe Boomer mother can, and does, use it. The message I received this morning will be one of the 100 billion that will be sent via WhatsApp today. Pause for a moment, please, go back and review that figure: 100 billion; or around 12 times the number of letters that are delivered in the UK every year. In one day; and not all of them will be saying “lol” (laugh out loud).
The medium is the message
We all know Marshall McLuhan’s pithy statement, “the medium is the message”. Expanding upon this, he said:
The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.
McLuhan died in 1980, and would probably have considered himself to have lived through a time when the ‘medium’ changed considerably. Born at a time when messages would have been transmitted via Morse code, he lived to see radio, then film, then television all emerge as new media. In his 1962 novel The Gutenburg Galaxy, he predicted the ‘electronic age’ and talked about the concept of the ‘global village’, but with that, issued a dreadful warning:
Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.
WhatsApp – a medium
Surely though, WhatsApp is just another tool to disseminate information; but if as a ‘medium’, what is the message it is imparting to us?
Two grey ticks = someone has received your message. Two blue ticks = they’ve actually seen it. “Last online” = when they last engaged with the platform, so that is the time since you sent the message; your message remains unread (you know exactly how important you are to the recipient). Is this, actually, a good thing? You can, of course, hide this information from recipients, but as a default option on the platform, most of us don’t.
It’s not yet 8am. I’ve received five messages already, and sent one. My WhatsApp day is barely beginning.
WhatsApp is going AI
WhatsApp is about to roll out an AI feature to the platform:
With Meta’s AIs, you can ask any question to find out more about topics or try and settle a debate in your group chat, including getting the perspective from dozens of characters Meta has created that respond in interesting ways.
Meta is the name of Facebook’s parent company.
In a recent South Park episode, the eternally-young schoolboys use ChatGPT to communicate with their girlfriends, who become enamoured of the lengthy, heartfelt responses to their messages they believe are being generated by humans. In the closing credits of the show, it’s revealed that parts of the episode were actually written by ChatGPT. Soon enough, when we think we’re communicating with a human, the likelihood could be that we are not.
Meta assures us that:
The most important thing to know is that your personal messages with friends and family are off limits. AIs can read what is sent to them, but your personal messages remain end-to-end encrypted, so no one else, including Meta, can see them.
Far be it from me to suggest that data we transmit on a free messaging platform may be monetised, but as the documentary The Social Dilemma put it, “If you’re not paying for the product – you are the product”.
The AI takeover?
One thing is virtually certain, as the ubiquity of WhatsApp increases, so will its reach into our lives. The addition of AI into the platform will increase its personalisation. The likelihood is that it will supplant social media as the source of news to the younger generation. The planned integration with Bing (the Microsoft variant of Google) will mean it will be where many of us go to carry out our web searches. The ‘lease on our eyes’ that McLuhan warned us about may well have been taken.
It’s 8:15am. Another three WhatsApps have come in; my girlfriend’s yet to come online, where my first message of the day waits for her. It’s time for me to get dressed and start proper work. Throughout the day, the messages will come in, and be displayed on my watch, each one demanding my attention.
Ping. Ping. Ping.