Skip to content

WhatsApp and the domestication of users

Posted by on his and Gemini capsule.
Last updated . Changelog.
3192 words; a read


Intro­duction

Update: I wrote a follow up: Keeping platforms open. Check it out if you found this article interesting.

I have never used WhatsApp, and never will. Despite this, I still feel the need to write an article about WhatsApp since it’s the perfect case study to help understand a class of businesses models I call “user domestication”. The domestication of users is high on my list of problems plaguing the human race, and is worth a detailed explanation.

WhatsApp wasn’t the first instant messenger of its kind, and probably won’t be the last. I simply chose to focus on WhatsApp since its recent privacy issues have made it a hot topic.

With the meta-explanation out of the way, let us begin.

WhatsApp’s rise

For those unfamiliar, WhatsApp is a tool that makes it convenient and easy to help Facebook further its core mission: the optimization and auctioning of human behavior (colloquially known as “targeted advertising”). It originally persuaded people to consent to this by allowing them to send text to each other over the Internet, something that was already possible, and combining an easy-to-learn UI with successful marketing. It then expanded to include features such as free voice and video calls. Free calls helped it grow to become the de-facto communication platform in many regions. I’m stunned at its ubiquity every time I visit my extended family in India; I’m frequently greeted by looks of confusion when I remind them that I don’t use WhatsApp.

Having its own proprietary chat system incompatible with other clients allowed WhatsApp to build a network effect: WhatsApp’s existing users were held captive by the fact that leaving WhatsApp meant losing the ability to communicate with WhatsApp users. People switching from WhatsApp must convince all their friends to switch, too; this includes less technically inclined friends who had a hard time learning WhatsApp in the first place.

In a WhatsApp world, people who want to keep in touch must abide by the following rules:

  • Everyone can only use the proprietary WhatsApp client to send messages; developing alternative clients isn’t supported.
  • Everyone’s mobile device must run an operating system supported by said client. Since WhatsApp developers will only write a client for popular operating systems, the Android and iOS duopoly strengthens.
  • Users fully depend on WhatsApp developers. If WhatsApp developers decide to include user-hostile features in the app, users must go with it. They can’t switch to a different server or client without switching away from WhatsApp and losing the ability to communicate with all their WhatsApp contacts.

User domestication

WhatsApp rose by trapping previously-free beings in their corral and changing their habits to create dependence on masters. Over time, this made it difficult or impossible to return to their previous lifestyle. That process should sound familiar: it’s eerily similar to the domestication of animals.

I call this type of vendor lock-in user domestication: the removal of user autonomy to trap users into serving vendors.

I chose this metaphor because animal domestication is a gradual process that isn’t always deliberate, and typically revolves around one group becoming dependent upon another. For example: there’s evidence that domestication of dogs began with socialization, resulting in not-entirely-artificial selection promoting genes that resulted in more friendliness with and dependence upon humans.note 1

Whether it happens on purpose or by accident, user domestication almost always follows the same three steps:

  1. A high level of dependence given from users to a software vendor
  2. An inability for users to control their software, through at least one of the following methods:
    1. Preventing modification of the software
    2. Preventing migration onto a different platform
  3. The exploitation of now-captive users who are unable to resist

The completion of the first two steps left WhatsApp users vulnerable to user domestication. With investors to answer to, they had every incentive to implement user-hostile features without consequence.

So, of course, they did.

WhatsApp’s descent

Domestication has a purpose: it enables a master species to exploit the domesticated species for its own gain.

Recently, WhatsApp updated its privacy policy to allow sharing data with its parent, Facebook. Users who agreed to use WhatsApp under its previous privacy policy had two options: agree to the new policy or be unable to use WhatsApp again. The WhatsApp privacy policy update is a classic bait-and-switch: WhatsApp lured users in with a sleek interface and the impression of privacy, domesticated them to remove their autonomy to migrate, and then backtracked on its previous commitment to privacy with minimal consequence. Each step in this process enabled the next; had user domestication not taken place, it would be easy for most users to switch away with minimal friction.

Those of us who were sounding the alarm a few years ago experienced a brief moment of sadistic bliss when our titles were upgraded from “annoying and paranoid conspiracy theorists” to just “annoying”.

An attempt at damage control

The bait-and-switch operation incurred backlash significant enough for a noticeable minority of users to actually migrate; this number turned out to be slightly more than the rounding error WhatsApp was likely expecting. In response, WhatsApp delayed the change and published an ad to improve its image.


Whatsapp Ad

WhatsApp notice describing data not collected.

WhatsApp ad, taken from (archived: Wayback Machine snapshot)

Toggle image transcript
Image transcript

WhatsApp Protects and Secures Your Personal Messages.

  • WhatsApp cannot see your personal messages or hear your calls and neither can Facebook.

  • WhatsApp does not keep logs of who everyone is messaging or calling.

  • WhatsApp cannot see your shared location and neither can Facebook.

  • WhatsApp does not share your contacts with Facebook.

  • WhatsApp groups remain private.

  • You can set your messages to disappear.

  • You can download your data.


The ad lists various data that WhatsApp doesn’t collect or share. Allaying data collection concerns by listing data not collected is misleading. WhatsApp doesn’t collect hair samples or retinal scans either; not collecting that information doesn’t mean it respects privacy because it doesn’t change the information WhatsApp does collect.

The ad denies “keep[ing] logs of who everyone is messaging or calling”. Collecting data is not the same as “keeping logs”; it’s possible for metadata to be fed into an algorithm before being discarded. A model can thus learn that two users call each other frequently without keeping logs of the metadata for each call. The fact that they specifically chose to phrase this line around logging implies that WhatsApp either already collects this class of data or has deliberately left the door open to collecting it in the future.

A stroll through WhatsApp’s actual privacy policy at the time reveals that they do collect considerable metadata used for marketing through Facebook.

Software freedom

With user domestication, providing useful software to users is a means to the end of exploiting them. The alternative is simple: make serving users the end in and of itself.

To avoid being controlled by software, users must be in control. Software that allows users to be in control is called free software or libre software. The word “free” in this context refers to freedom rather than price. Software freedom is similar to the concept of open-source; the latter is an offshoot of the former focused on more business-friendly practical benefits rather than ethics. A less ambiguous term that neutrally refers to free, libre, and open-source software is FLOSS.note 2

Others have explained the fundamental concepts underpinning free software and its importance better than I can, so I won’t go into detail. It comes down to four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others

Making money with FLOSS

The most common objection I hear is that FLOSS makes it harder to make money.

The key to making money with FLOSS is to make software a commoditized complement of other, more profitable services. Examples of such services include selling support, customization, consulting, training, managed hosting, hardware, and certifications. Plenty of companies use this approach instead of building proprietary software: Red Hat, Collabora, System76, Purism, Canonical, SUSE, Hashicorp, Databricks, and Gradle are some names that come to mind.

Managed hosting isn’t a basket worth all your eggs if giants like AWS can do the same at a lower price. Being the developer can give an edge in areas like customization, support, and training; it doesn’t offer as obvious an advantage when it comes to hosting.

FLOSS isn’t always enough

Free software is a necessary but sometimes insufficient requirement to build domestication immunity. Two more measures include simplicity and open platforms.

Simplicity

When software grows too complex, it needs to be maintained by a large team. Users who disagree with a vendor can’t easily fork and maintain a multi-million-line codebase, especially if the software in question potentially contains security vulnerabilities. Dependence on the vendor can grow quite problematic when complexity causes development costs to skyrocket; the vendor might resort to implementing user-hostile features to stay afloat.

Complex software that can’t be developed by a different group of people creates dependence, step one of user domestication. That alone is enough to open the door to problematic developments.

Case study: Mozilla and the Web

Mozilla was a ray of hope in the browser wars, a space dominated by adtech, surveillance, and vendor lock-in. Unfortunately, developing a browser engine is a monumental task difficult enough for Opera and Microsoft to give up and re-skin Chromium. Browsers are more than the document readers they were meant to be: they’ve evolved into application runtimes with their own stacks for GPU acceleration, Bluetooth, permissions, device enumeration, bundled media codecs, DRMnote 3, extension APIs, developer tools…the list goes on. It takes billions of dollars a year to respond to vulnerabilities in such a massive attack surface and keep up with a standard that grows at such a worrying rate. Those billions have to come from somewhere.

Mozilla ended up having to make major compromises to stay afloat. It cut search deals with blatantly user-hostile companies, and bundled the browser with ads and bloatware such as a partially ad-funded proprietary bookmarking SaaS called Pocket. Since acquiring Pocket (to diversify its sources of income), Mozilla hasn’t yet delivered on its earlier statements saying it would open-source its code: while the clients have been open-sourced, the server code remains proprietary. Open-sourcing this and re-writing portions if necessary would understandably be a large task due in part to Pocket’s complexity.

Substantial forks such as Pale Moon are unable to keep up with the growing complexity of modern Web standards such as Web Components. In fact, Pale Moon recently had to migrate its code off of GitHub since GitHub began using Web Components, a feature too complex for Pale Moon to support. It’s nigh-impossible to start a new browser from scratch and catch up with behemoths that have been running on ridiculous annual sums for decades. Users can pick between a browser engine developed by Mozilla, an adtech company (Blink by Google), or a walled-garden vendor (WebKit by Apple). WebKit doesn’t seem too bad, but users will be helpless if Apple ever decides to backtrack.

To summarize: the complexity of the Web platform forced Mozilla, the only browser engine developer claiming to serve “people, not profit”, to implement user-hostile features in its browser. The Web’s complexity has left users with limited choice between three big players with conflicts of interest whose positions grow more entrenched with time.

For the record, I don’t think Mozilla is a bad organization; rather, I think it’s surprising that they’re able to do so much without further compromise in a system that practically requires it. Their core product is still FLOSS, and very lightly patched third-party builds remove antifeatures.

Open platforms

To prevent a network effect from turning into vendor lock-in, software that naturally encourages a network effect needs to be part of an open platform. In the case of messaging software, it should be possible to make alternative clients and servers that are compatible with each other to prevent completion of user domestication’s first two steps.

Case study: Signal

Ever since a certain car salesman tweeted “Use Signal”, large numbers of users have been obediently switching. At the time of writing, the Signal clients and servers are FLOSS and use some of the best E2EE out there; however, I’m not a fan.

Although Signal’s clients and servers are FLOSS, Signal is still a closed platform. Signal co-founder Moxie Marlinspike is quite critical of open and federated platforms, describing his rationale for keeping Signal a closed platform in a blog post.note 4 This means that there’s no supported way to develop an alternative server that’s supported by Signal clients, or an alternative client that supports Signal servers. Step one to user domestication is nearly complete.

In addition to there being a single client and server implementation, there’s only one Signal server provider: Signal Messenger LLC. Users’ dependence on this central server provider blew up in their faces when Signal’s recent growth caused downtime for over a day, rendering every Signal user unable to send messages until the single vendor fixed the issue.

People still tried to develop alternative clients: a Signal fork called LibreSignal attempted to make Signal work on privacy-friendly Android builds without proprietary Google Play Services. That fork shut down after Moxie made it clear that he wasn’t okay with a third-party app using Signal’s servers. Moxie’s decision is understandable, but the situation could have been avoided if Signal didn’t have to rely on a single server provider.

If Signal decides to update its apps to include a user-hostile feature, users will be just as helpless as they now are with WhatsApp. Although I don’t think this is likely, Signal’s closed platform leaves users vulnerable to user domestication.

Despite not liking Signal, I still recommended it to my non-technical friends because it was the only messenger private enough for me and simple enough for them. If it had literally any onboarding (account creation, manually adding contacts, etc.), one of my friends would have stuck with Discord or WhatsApp. I’d say something cheeky like “you know who you are” if there was any chance he’d make it this far in the article.

Food for thought

Both of the prior two case studies—Mozilla and Signal—are examples of well-meaning organizations unintentionally leaving users vulnerable to user domestication. The former represents a lack of simplicity but the presence of an open platform. The latter represents a closed platform with a higher degree of simplicity. Intent isn’t in the picture when examining the three steps and countermeasures to user domestication.

paulsnar pointed out a potential conflict between simplicity and open platforms:

I feel like there’s some tension between simplicity and open platforms; to take Signal, in a way it’s simple precisely because it’s a de-facto-closed platform, or at least so Moxie has argued. In turn, Matrix is superficially simple, but the protocol is actually (imho) fairly complex exactly because it’s an open platform.

I don’t have a simple answer to this dilemma. It’s true that Matrix is extremely complex (compared to alternatives such as IRC or even XMPP), and it’s true that it’s harder to build an open platform. That being said, it’s certainly possible to keep complexity on a leash while developing an open platform: Gemini, IRC, and email are examples. While email standards aren’t nearly simple as Gemini and IRC, they evolve slowly; this keeps implementations from having to play catch-up the way Web browsers and Matrix clients/servers do.

Not all software needs to rake in billions. Federation allows services and networks like the Fediverse and XMPP to scale up to large numbers of users without forcing a single behemoth to sell its soul to foot the bill. Although anti-domestication business models are less profitable, they still allow the creation of the same technologies that were enabled by user domestication. All that’s missing is an advertising budget; the biggest advertising some of these projects get is long unpaid blog posts.

Maybe we don’t need to chase growth and try to “make it big”. Maybe we can stop after achieving sustainability and financial security, and make it possible for people to do more with less.

Closing notes

Before it turned into a manifesto of sorts, this post was intended to be an expanded version of a comment I left under a Fediverse post by Binyamin Green.

I initially decided to expand it to its current form for personal reasons. Nowadays, people demand a thorough explanation every time I refuse to use something that “everybody” uses (WhatsApp, Microsoft Office, Windows, macOS, Google Docs…). They’ll usually ignore the explanation, but they expect one anyway. By the next time I meet them, they’ll have forgotten our prior conversation and will re-enact the same dialogue again. Justifying all my life choices by sending logically correct statements into the void—knowing that everything I say will be ignored—is an emotionally draining process that has taken a toll on my mental health for the past few years; sending my friends this article and changing the subject should save me a few gray hairs in the years to come.

This article extends the guiding philosophies of the Free Software and Copyleft movements. Thanks to Barna Zsombor for giving good feedback over IRC.

Since 2900 words wasn’t quite enough, I wrote a follow-up: Keeping platforms open. Check it out if you found this article interesting.

Translations

Translations are always welcome.


References and endnotes

  1. Pierotti, R.; Fogg, B. (2017). The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved. Yale University Press. 

    Back
  2. Many within the free software movement dislike the term “open source” for a number of reasons; others use the terms “free” and “open source” interchangeably. Finally, many vendors use the word “free” to refer to price rather than freedom, prompting some free software supporters to adopt the term “libre” instead. All this can be quite confusing, which is why I prefer acronyms like FLOSS to describe these terms’ intersection. 

    Back
  3. See Defective by Design. DRM is another classic example of user domestication. For the record, Mozilla opposed making DRM a Web standard. It implemented DRM support after it lost to the other W3C members. This doesn’t excuse putting DRM in a browser, but at least there wasn’t malicious intent. The same can’t be said for the pro-DRM members of the W3C. 

    Back
  4. Moxie’s blog post generated many responses. Two good follow-ups are on Linux Weekly News and a blog post by Matrix.org 

    Back

Web­mentions

This site supports Webmentions, a backlink-based alternative to traditional comment forms.

Publish a response on your own website and share the link here to send me a webmention! Include a link to this page's canonical location for it to be accepted.

Webmentions received for this post appear in the following list after I approve them. I sometimes send Webmentions to myself on behalf of linking sites that don't support them. I replace broken links with Wayback Machine snapshots, if they exist.

Toggle Webmentions
by

A property to indicate that the h-entry is a translation of the linked text into another language. Can be used in the same way as the existing u-like-of and u-repost-of properties, that is, either contain the URL which the h-entry is the translation of, or (optionally) contain and embedded h-cite. Can be useful to inform the original source (via a webmention) of the existence of the translation, providing a way for the original source to enumerate translations automatically. Example in the w…

by

Temps de lecture 20 minimage_pdfimage_printLe mois dernier, WhatsApp a publié une nouvelle politique de confidentialité avec cette injonction : acceptez ces nouvelles conditions, ou supprimez WhatsApp de votre smartphone. La transmission de données privées à la maison-mère Facebook a suscité pour WhatsApp un retour de bâton retentissant et un nombre significatif d’utilisateurs et utilisatrices a migré vers d’autres applications, en particulier Signal. Cet épisode parmi d’aut…

Heute bei den Lesetipps: Die App der Deutschen Bahn trackt seine Nutzer selbst dann, wenn die das gar nicht wollen. EU plant biometrische Datenbank zur Abwehr von Flüchtlingen, irgendwann ist niemand mehr sicher vor Überwachung. Und last, but not least: The walking Data, made in Munich. Wie löchrig sich der staatliche Online-Shop jenseits der Weißwurstgrenze schon bei oberflächlicher Betrachtung gezeigt hat. Der Wahnsinn nimmt seinen Lauf, wir sind wie üblich live und in Farbe dabei…L…

Jayeless.net this

Reading Time: 2 minutesUser domestication was an interesting phrase that I noticed in an essay about the growth of WhatsApp. In the essay the author highlighted a number of factors in WhatsApp’s success:Having a proprietary messaging client that didn’t support industry standards for messaging such as the XMPP protocol supported by Google Talk. (Google later abandoned the XMPP open protocol itself in favour of its proprietary Google Hangouts).WhatsApp had a low learning curve of adoption…

by

La lettre d’information XMPP de février 2021 est disponible en anglais sur xmpp.org N. D. T. — Ceci est une traduction de la lettre d’information publiée régulièrement par l’équipe de communication de la XSF, essayant de conserver les tournures de phrase et l’esprit de l’original. Elle est publiée conjointement sur les sites LinuxFr.org et JabberFR.org. La liste des personnes y ayant contribué est disponible sur Linuxfr.org. Bienvenue dans la lettre d’information X…

by

Im letzten Monat las ich folgende Texte und fand diese gut: Diese paar Texte im Zusammenhang mit der Löschung meines WhatsApp-Accounts: – WhatsApp and the domestication of users (seirdy.one): Wieso es molassenhaft zäh ist, auf einen anderen Dienst zu wechseln. Aber hey, sogar mein Mami hat’s ohne Hilfe zu Signal geschafft. – WhatsApp and most alternatives share the same problem – Jürg Stuker (stuker.com): Jürg Stuker über das grundlegende Problem von Messengeren. – Kill the Mes…

“Dear politicians of the EU, it’s time to decentralize the internet” with a fun video 600 TOMATOES explain how to fight BIG TECH introducing federated inter-operable messaging — NoordStar, 2021 WhatsApp and the domestication of users with case studies Mozilla, Signal; followed by Keeping platforms open with case studies XMPP, Matrix — Seirdy, 2021 We Need Alternatives to Big Tech. These Decentralized Tools Might Be The Answer. highlights Beaker/Hypercore and Matrix — New Ame…

Indice dei contenuti1 WhatsApp e l’addomesticamento degli utenti2 L’ascesa di WhatsApp3 Addomesticamento degli utenti4 La discesa di WhatsApp5 Un tentativo di controllo dei danni6 Libertà del software7 Guadagnare con FLOSS8 FOSS non è sempre sufficiente9 Semplicità10 Caso di studio: Mozilla e il Web11 Piattaforme aperte12 Caso di studio: Signal13 Spunto di riflessione14 Note di chiusuraOggi vi proponiamo un articolo molto interessante, non è scritto di nostro pugno ma è stato tradott…

by

This comment may have major formatting errors that could impact screen reader comprehension.

This article is about the pitfalls of WhatsApp, but it could be about many different platforms and how they mistreat users: https://u.fsf.org/397 WhatsApp and the domestication of users

by

This comment may have major formatting errors that could impact screen reader comprehension.

@fsf thank you very much for sharing this valuable post, FSF. Reshared of course.

by

The part on 'user domestication' is spot on. As for the criticism on Signal: Perfect is the enemy of good. I recommend a working end-to-end encrypted chat app made by a foundation, over the less refined alternatives. Whatever technology we use, the least intelligent person in your social life sets the bar. With my family and friends, that bar is on 'Signal'-level and while I would love to adopt Matrix, it's a bridge to far.

by
by

This comment may have major formatting errors that could impact screen reader comprehension.

"WhatsApp rose by trapping previously-free beings in their corral and changing their habits to create dependence on masters. Over time, this made it difficult or impossible to return to their previous lifestyle. That process should sound familiar: it’s eerily similar to the domestication of animals."Written by @Seirdy Article shared to me by a @fdroidorg comtributor in the F-droid forum https://forum.f-droid.org/t/mozilla-and-facebook-meta-working-together/17425/19Link: https://seirdy.one/2…

Dr. Stefan Brink ist seit 2017 Landesbeauftragter für den Datenschutz und die Informationsfreiheit in Baden-Württemberg. Clarissa Henning ist Referentin beim Landesdatenschutzbeauftragten. Truth Social – das klingt wie die Vision dessen, was Soziale Medien sein sollten, aber eben nicht sind: Stätten des gleichberechtigten und offenen Diskurses, wo sich Wahrheiten gemeinsam und kritisch entwickeln lassen und der soziale Zusammenhalt inhaltlich fundiert wird. Schön wär’s. Um der Wahrhe…

by

This comment may have major formatting errors that could impact screen reader comprehension.

WhatsApp and the domestication of users https://seirdy.one/2021/01/27/whatsapp-and-the-domestication-of-users.html WhatsApp and the domestication of users

by

This comment may have major formatting errors that could impact screen reader comprehension.

Since these great blogposts reappeared in my feedreader due to some glitch...The right thing for the wrong reasons: FLOSS doesn't imply security - Seirdy: https://seirdy.one/posts/2022/02/02/floss-security/Not that this stops me from seeking out obvious examples of misfeatures...Keeping Platforms Open: https://seirdy.one/posts/2021/02/23/keeping-platforms-open/Whatsapp & The Demostication of Users: https://seirdy.one/posts/2021/01/27/whatsapp-and-the-domestication-of-users/ The right thing …

by

ó, um texto tri sobre o paralelo da domesticação de animais não humanos e a domesticação de usuários pelas empresas de aplicativos. seirdy.one/posts/2021/01/…

by

Read this really good blog post by @Seirdy about User Domestication, what it means, and it's implications. I highly recommend giving it a read.https://seirdy.one/posts/2021/01/27/whatsapp-and-the-domestication-of-users/

by

Anecdotally, Ekioh is building a browser from the ground up, and doing a pretty good job at it. Granted, it's closed source, and only really meant for low power devices. Nonetheless, I think it's a noble effort on their part.

by

Я никогда не пользовался WhatsApp, и никогда не стану. Несмотря на это, я чувствую необходимость написать о нём статью, потому что пример WhatsApp — отличная иллюстрация для понимания бизнес-моделей, которые я называю «одомашниванием пользователей». Одомашнивание пользовате…

Feel free to contact me directly with feedback; here’s my contact info