Meta might yet come to love WhatsApp as much as Matt Hancock and friends do

Laura Slattery: The messaging app plays a valuable role in many people’s lives, but what is it worth to its owner?

Exactly what Matt Hancock was doing and saying on WhatsApp while the pandemic raged is so diverting, it’s easy to overlook another question concerning the messaging platform: what on earth is Mark Zuckerberg doing with it?

What does the Meta boss want with WhatsApp? Has he a plan for it? After all, he spent $19 billion (€17.7 billion) on the thing.

We know that UK politicians love WhatsApp. This much was clear long before Covid took flight. In particular, they love an active WhatsApp group. They’re so enthusiastic about them, they probably keep their sound notifications on.

The politicians got to say, ‘look what a thoughtful, dedicated, loyal person I am even in the context of a private, informal WhatsApp group’

For some years now, messages leaked from various politician-populated groups read as shamelessly performative, almost as if the main reason for contributing to a WhatsApp group was precisely so that these wise words would be screenshotted and forwarded to journalists.


The politicians got to say, “look what a thoughtful, dedicated, loyal person I am even in the context of a private, informal WhatsApp group”, while the political editors got to say, “look at how skilled I am at uncovering the inner workings of government”.

Nobody ever seemed to make a sense-destroying number of typos or send a laughing unicorn emoji by mistake.

The Daily Telegraph’s procurement of more than 100,000 messages that flew between the UK’s former health secretary and other ministers and officials at the height of the pandemic has a different feel to it, of course.

These messages, stupidly entrusted by Hancock to his memoir co-author Isabel Oakeshott and duly turned over to the newspaper by her, were destined to form part of Westminster’s inquiry into the handling of Covid. But they were never meant to be leaked like this.

Over the past week, the drip-feed of stories based on pithy, pointed, flippant-seeming and sometimes damning exchanges have generated an entertaining line of media questioning as politicians yet to feature in the so-called Lockdown Files are asked if they ever sent Hancock a WhatsApp. Anything they would like to reveal now before the Telegraph does? Nervous laughter ensues.

As with the Wagatha Christie case last year — in which not terribly nice WhatsApp conversations between Rebekah Vardy and her former agent about Coleen Rooney were disclosed in court during Vardy’s backfiring libel action — the leak has triggered an excruciating emotional two-step.

The whole point of WhatsApp, or any ostensibly private communication, lies in the freedom of it not being public

First, comes the sensation of bullet-dodging relief — no, these aren’t your WhatsApp rants, jokes and slaggings off. Then comes the fear. How would it feel if your WhatsApp messages were shared with people who were not meant to receive them?

Granted you’re not running a country or pursuing an ill-advised libel claim, but then neither was Vardy’s agent. Your joyfully candid messages to a trusted few wouldn’t have to be given the full newspaper graphics treatment — with added asterisking for faint-of-heart readers — for their distribution to be calamitous and mortifying.

The whole point of WhatsApp, or any ostensibly private communication, lies in the freedom of it not being public. Never mind Twitter: it is WhatsApp, a messaging service rather than a social media platform, that has a role of fundamental importance to the lives of many of us.

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One exception here appears to be Americans, who don’t indulge in the pleasures of a WhatsApp group chat quite so much. Indeed, the Financial Times reported last month that Apple has captured the custom of Generation Z in part because young people risk social stigma if their Android phones turn group messages from the blue bubbles of Apple’s iMessages to the old-school green of SMS.

Elsewhere, WhatsApp doesn’t have to churn out endless marketing material about “friends” and “connecting”, as Facebook once did, for users to understand how valuable it is to them.

But WhatsApp is nevertheless part of the same “family of apps” as Facebook. Meta’s $19 billion splurge on the free instant messaging, voice call and video call app — made in 2014 — came when the service was a fast-growing five-year-old on the path to one billion active users. To put the price tag in context, WhatsApp cost Facebook a multiple of the $1 billion it paid for cash machine Instagram in 2012. It remains its largest acquisition to date.

WhatsApp now has more than 2.2 billion active users. And yet the company has barely got around to ruining it — sorry, monetising it. What gives?

There has, naturally, been the occasional regulatory skirmish. One of them, with the European Commission, has only just been resolved, with WhatsApp agreeing on Monday to become more transparent about how it updates its terms of service.

This follows an alert raised in July 2021 by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), which said WhatsApp had engaged in unfair practices, prompting a cross-European action jointly led by Ireland’s Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, the Swedish consumer agency Om Konsumenverket and the commission.

The result is that WhatsApp has now committed to explain clearly in advance the impact of privacy changes to users, to highlight the option to reject updates as prominently as the option to accept them and to refrain from sending aggressive notifications. It promises to be on its best behaviour.

But while WhatsApp stays out of the worst controversies, it also seems shy of any kind of limelight at all. The app carries no advertising, which is Meta’s main source of revenue. Attempts to make money from it have been limited to the WhatsApp business platform and the most advanced features of this, a business directory search and a payment facility, are only available in a small number of countries.

More prosaically, Zuckerberg also said Meta was continuing to ‘on-board’ more businesses to the WhatsApp business platform

There are signs, however, that belated attention is coming its way. In Meta’s most recent earnings update, Zuckerberg seemed thoroughly pleased by the launch of WhatsApp avatars and what this might mean for the metaverse.

More prosaically, he also said Meta was continuing to “on-board” more businesses to the WhatsApp business platform, while chief financial officer Susan Li referred to “strong business messaging revenue growth”, adding that this was offsetting decline in other line items.

Zuckerberg’s vision is that he wants people to be able to pay small businesses through WhatsApp. In Brazil, retailers have been given the green light by its central bank to receive payments this way.

So, perhaps, WhatsApp is only warming up after all. Perhaps by the time the next pandemic comes along, UK politicians won’t only be discussing policy moves on the app, they’ll be able to bung their mates the cash for PPE contracts over it, too.