Saturday, January 4, 2020

Good Riddance, WhatsApp!

I took the jump. Deleted my WhatsApp account.

Yes, I know. There are too many important groups. There are people who can't use email or other means of communication. Coordination of so many things will become difficult. What harm is there in keeping the account, and not using it? What if there is an emergency?

But, I am sorry. I deleted the account.

The idea isn't new. Pirate Praveen doesn't have a Whatsapp account. Prashanth NS doesn't use Whatsapp. Cal Newport advocates digital minimalism. All in all, plenty of people have done well without WhatsApp and actively inhibit WhatsApp usage. But I won't ask you to uninstall WhatsApp just yet. Maybe at the end of this post.

WhatsApp is a good chat app. It has a simple interface. It works consistently in poor connectivity areas. It has various features that make chat easy. It may not be the best. I personally prefer Riot (a client of Matrix protocol) and Telegram for chat. But, WhatsApp still does its job.

Maybe it is chat that I do not like. Synchronous messages create a sense of urgency. The delivered/read ticks on WhatsApp forces me to respond quickly to messages. Maybe I'm not ready for that. Maybe I want to respond to messages when I want to.

Yet I use other chat apps. I use Telegram extensively. I use slack. What's the difference?

Perhaps I should start from the beginning. First, we invented the telephone. We could talk to each other at a distance. That is a definite value addition. You no longer had to travel long distances to talk to people.

Then there was internet. With that came email. The good thing about email was that you could send it across very quickly to large number of people (like mailing lists) and people could skim through many many emails very quickly.

There also was blogging. Blogs are like books. People may read you. People may not read you. A million people may see it. Nobody may see it. Blogs fulfilled the role of people wanting to reach out to the world and influence the world.

Then, there was the mobile phone. And with that came SMS. SMS was sort of like email, and sort of like phone call. It was designed to be short. It was designed to be direct. That allowed for quick, non-distracting, short message updates.

That is the point at which chat apps come to the picture. The biggest feature of a chat app is the group chat. Individual chats are just like SMS, but with pictures and videos they could be called SMS on steroids. But group chats is an entirely different paradigm. Group chats let people talk to multiple people at the same time. Sort of like a broadcast, but multi-way broadcast. That allows quick coordination of large groups.

I almost missed social networks. Social networks are like the sum of all the previous innovations. They combine the intimacy of group chats with an experience similar to walking through a virtual world and influencing a large number of people.

All of these are not without consequences. Firstly, our attention is now deeply fragmented. We have a thousand things we can engage with at any point in time. In the attention economy everyone has to shout louder to be heard. Soon everyone is shouting even more loudly. It becomes like a party floor where nobody can hear nobody else.

Secondly, it is so easy to bombard each other with messages that sooner or later people get strong opinions about things. And that makes for a heavily polarized world because people always tend to have differing opinions.

Thirdly, and most importantly, people are unable to work on hard problems with their mind into it because that requires focus and peaceful mind. I have a very big hunch that this is the biggest reason why economies world over are failing - because people simply aren't productive any more.

All that said, now I can state the reasons why WhatsApp and Facebook (and more recently twitter) are especially to blame.

The way Facebook is designed, you connect to your friends and family. And then you hear from them. Sure you can connect with various organizations, etc. But yet, nobody keeps their connections devoid of family and friends. This "social" prat of the social network makes it a very mediocre place. There is a very good chance that the best people you can listen to on any particular topic is not in your social circles. The best writers, thinkers, or analysts on the planet probably didn't go to the same high school as you did. Therefore, if you wanted to put your attention on the best things on any topic, Facebook is a very bad place.

Similarly, WhatsApp is designed for people who know each other well (well enough to have each others' phone number) to communicate. Even with group chats, you are probably not going to share groups with very smart people. WhatsApp, therefore, has the same pitfall as Facebook. It encourages mediocrity and conformation.

Apps like Telegram and Reddit do not have this problem. (Although the attention economy is still a problem there). And therefore WhatsApp gets an extra negative mark there.

And then, there are all the other reasons. WhatsApp is not free software. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook. (And since the last update it clearly shows on the splash screen that it is owned by Facebook). And Facebook is evil in various ways.

Of course this post would be incomplete without me telling how I actually managed to pull this off.

First, I had notifications turned off for WhatsApp through Android settings. It had been that way for months. Essentially, I would see WhatsApp message only when I opened the app.

But, about a month back, right around the time CAA was passed, I started doing another thing. I used a firewall app called NetGuard (which doesn't require root) to block internet to WhatsApp. And I hid the WhatsApp icon in the Niagra launcher I use. And I turned off background data (just an added measure because NetGuard anyhow stops background data). And I changed my WhatsApp status to let people know that I won't be online. And I changed my profile picture with a message that I won't be online. And then I kept silent for days.

The first time I did that, it was in solidarity with the people suffering from internet shutdowns in India. When I logged in after about a week, I noticed that I hadn't missed a lot of important messages at all.

So, I tried it again. This time I did it for two weeks. And this time too, I hadn't missed anything important. My patients could either directly call me or my clinic manager for appointments. My colleagues could message/call/email me any important thing from the WhatsApp groups. And I was insulated from all the "Merry Christmas and Happy New year" gifs.

The only reason I wouldn't go ahead and delete WhatsApp was that I wanted access to the past messages. Or so I thought as you will see in the next paragraph.

Today I thought I would install WhatsApp Business and set up an "auto-respond while away" message for giving people who contact me a fairer warning that I won't be reading their messages. But turns out that feature works only if you turn WhatsApp on and let it receive messages. While trying to switch to WhatsApp Business, I also lost the chat history (because for some reason it restores only from Google Drive backup while switching between WhatsApp and WA Business). And then I realized that I probably don't need access to my chat history.

To sum up, I had enough time away from WhatsApp and I was convinced that WhatsApp was an unnecessary evil and that life without it would be as convenient, if not more. And so I just went into the settings and deleted the account.

Now, nobody can inadvertently wait for a response from me because they won't be able to message me. And I can do my own deep work.

If you like what you're reading, subscribe!

Get posts via email:

One more time, subscribe via email: