WhatsApp, the App That May Eat Up Your Free Time

After Facebook bought the company for $19 billion, many wonder about the app that’s particularly popular in Israel.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

I didn’t know I was one of those moms – the kind falling down on the mom job.

I discovered a text message on my phone from my son’s nursery school teacher; she was asking me to bring in a new water bottle because his had gone missing and he was mooching off other kids.

The teacher sent the message through WhatsApp, and to my horror, it was more than a month old when I noticed it. Apparently the teacher gave up on my being a responsible parent and contacted my husband instead.

Welcome to the world of WhatsApp, which is changing the face of parenting – and communicating – as we know it. I added WhatsApp to my smartphone at some point last year because someone urged me to do it, but I didn’t take much of an interest and still don’t remember to open the app regularly.

Maybe that’s because with four e-mail addresses, active accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Skype, and various forms of instant messaging capabilities, I didn’t really feel the need to indulge in another mode of connectivity. And maybe my inner grammar freak was annoyed by the lack of punctuation in the “Whats.”

WhatsApp has caught on big in Israel; it’s much more of a household name than in the United States, where it was created. In a short time, it has so permeated Israeli society that my son’s nursery school teacher apparently thinks that using it is the most natural way to contact a parent.

In fact, the parents in the class of 22 3- and 4-year-olds are so keen on using WhatsApp that if I do leave the app open, my life begins to feel like a nonstop PTA meeting. Messaging happens at all hours, and parents feel the need to chime in on every subject to show they care. Mothers and fathers gripe, argue, organize, chat, and even give kudos to the teacher – who’s a member of the group, after all.

They pose sundry questions on all matters pertinent and petty. When there was a big snowstorm in Jerusalem in December, the parents traded constant messages about whether the kids could or should go back to school. Even more annoyingly, they posted photos of their kids in the snow, flooding my photo stream with scores of photographs of kids I hardly knew.

Other parents swear by how useful WhatsApp has been in organizing, like when they want the city to fix something at their child’s school or neighborhood park. The technology creates a kind of automatic lobby, an online community in which theoretically one cuts to the chase and skips over the daily dose of eye candy, favorite links, amusing memes and retweets that clog our digital lives.

In fact, WhatsApp is such a big hit with so many segments of the population here – including Orthodox Jews and religious Muslims, for example – because the focus isn’t on images. As WhatsApp is mainly useful for closed-group messaging – though lots of people are also using it to send free person-to-person text messages – it’s easy to keep out unwanted chatter. In short, millions people who are Facebook resisters can easily join in the conversation without drinking the full glass of Kool-Aid.

My husband’s extended Israeli family, in which no one over 16 is on Facebook, has gone gung ho for WhatsApp and has been using it to share photos, offer important updates and plan family gatherings. And parents of high school students – and perhaps most important of all, soldiers doing mandatory service – find it the easiest way to engage in the national sport of keeping up with the (big) kids.

Beyond all the constellations of social networking and community organizing, WhatsApp is even being used as a business tool. An institution for which I recently gave a guest lecture contacted me to ask for an invoice, all through WhatsApp. Important documents that used to get sent by email and fax (remember that?) can now be WhatsApped to one’s health maintenance organization and certain government offices.

The thing that people probably enjoy so much about WhatsApp is that it doesn’t try to suck you in for more. At least not yet. WhatsApp doesn’t seek additional personal information or store it, thanks to Jan Koum, the Soviet Jewish émigré who cofounded the company and considered that kind of behavior rather Big Brothery.

WhatsApp doesn’t bug you to fill out your user profile, and it doesn’t try to sell you anything. But as Forbes contributor Maseena Ziegler explains in a post called “5 Uncool Things That Facebook Could Do To WhatsApp,” that could soon change. WhatsApp enthusiasts are worried that following Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition last week, WhatsApp could start collecting user data, selling ads and making messaging much more transparent – and less private.

But if you’d really like to have a private conversation, there’s still that passé little option of meeting someone for a cup of coffee.

A WhatsApp page is seen on Facebook on a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone.Credit: Reuters

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