It has been five months since Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion, yet it still doesn’t seem to have caught on in the US. Every American I know that uses it (myself included) says they use it almost exclusively for people they’ve met abroad, or foreign friends they’ve made here Stateside. So why does the rest of the world use WhatsApp, yet Americans don’t?
I remember the first time I heard about WhatsApp. “That’s a stupid name for an app,” I thought. It was 2011, and I had just moved to Spain to teach English. My 30€/month plan from Orange España included unlimited data (increíble, I know) and 50 texts/month. After you went over 50, SMS (texts) were 9 cents each, which I figured was reasonable since the data plan was so cheap.
But then my friend Lorena told me about WhatsApp. It sounded trendy and kinda dumb, but I downloaded it. She was my only contact. I didn’t really see the point at first, but I liked that it was saving me some SMS messages. Slowly I gained one contact at a time as I met more Spanish people that used the app. Soon I was telling my friends and family back in the States to download it. It could be used across any of the major mobile platforms (Android, iOs, Windows, Blackberry,) free of charge, anywhere in the world. I could “text” my loved ones back home FO’ FREE. It was a dream come true.
I became completely dependent on this app during my years in Spain, using it with my friends, family, students and coworkers alike. Since returning to the States, it has been totally weird having to readjust to some people using the antiquated SMS. My American friends and family who used it with me while I was abroad continue to use it with me (most of them with me as their only contact,) and they too scratch their heads as to why it still hasn’t caught on in the US.
So why is WhatsApp better than SMS, you ask? Let me count the ways:
1. Media sharing: It’s very easy and quick to share photos and videos on Whatsapp. The upload progress is shown right on the media, and all the media shared with a specific person or group can be easily accessed and scrolled through within the conversation, like your own personal little photo/video album. Also, there is a “voice recording” feature right next to the text input, so if you’re driving and want to just say your message or want to sing them a song or whatever, you don’t have to “attach” the audio. Just click and hold the mic icon, record your message, release, and it is sent.
2. Conversation-having: WhatsApp is this neat hybrid of texting and instant-messaging. You can see if someone is online,typing, or when they were last online. This is useful for a number of reasons. If they’re online (which means they currently have that app open on their phone,) you know they’ll see your message right away. If they’re typing, you know to stop typing until you see what they’re about to say. If they were last online at 4am on a Sunday, you know they probably had a long night and they probably won’t be up for an early brunch date. You send an SMS to someone? You have no idea if/when they will read it.
3. Platform: The design is simple, it runs seamlessly, and there are no ads. NO ADS. Enough said.
4: GROUP TEXTING!!!: I’m yelling this because it is the most important. I have an HTC One, and it could be some sort of glitch in the specific software for the phone, but group SMS is awful. Clumsy. Inefficient. I can’t see what someone has said in the preview, and when I click on the notification it usually brings me to my own private convo with that person rather than the group convo. So I have to back out of that and select the group convo myself. When I send a message, there’s a delay. WhatsApp group conversations are beautifully designed and run very smoothly. You can name the group something funny or cute (my most beloved group is with 3 girl friends: “almas gemelas”) or name the convo based on the topic/purpose (“birthday party plans”) and then you’ll see it among your individual and group message threads under that name. You can click on a group member to see when they were last online to see if they’ve read your message within the group.
The other day I was discussing these benefits with an American friend who sparingly uses WhatsApp, and he totally agreed but said, “I feel like it’s just an extra effort to go into it and use it. It feels like I’m opening an app and then my messages rather than my inbox and then my messages. Which in essence isn’t any different…”
Exactly. Americans seem to have this weird mindset about SMS, like it’s a special kind of messaging that we need to hold onto. But if you have a smartphone, why continue to use it? Unless you’re texting someone who doesn’t have one? (In which case, there’s a simple workaround I used while abroad so that I could text anyone back home, smartphone or not, for free from my phone.)
It takes a little while to get used to using WhatsApp, like anything else. Like my friend said, you have to get used to “opening an app” versus opening your messages, but that requires no extra steps. And once you’re in, I promise the experience will be much better.