WhatsApp has made a radical update to its app, turning it for the first time into a platform for passively consuming content, similar to the way people scroll through their Facebook or Instagram newsfeeds - and it’s a move that could finally usher in a money-making system like advertising.
WhatsApp’s new Status feature, rolled out on yesterday, will let users share photos, GIFs or videos overlaid with drawings, emojis and a caption that will be visible to selected friends for 24 hours, before disappearing. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s exactly like Snapchat’s hugely successful Stories feature, launched three years ago, which lets users share similarly-ephemeral timelines.
The move probably shouldn’t be surprising. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, saw its other social media property Instagram roll out a clone of Stories last summer, also called “Stories.” A spokesperson for Snapchat could not be reached for comment at the time of writing. This represents a bigger shift for WhatsApp than it did for Instagram though, because it potentially heralds a very different way of using the app. Till now WhatsApp has been a utilitarian hub of activity: people go on there to simply type and read messages and type some more. Not scroll endlessly through streams of other people’s content.
Status will change that use case for the first time. It also potentially opens the door to messages from businesses, or rather, advertisers. WhatsApp said more than a year ago that it was looking at ways that businesses could send messages to its users in an unobtrusive and useful way. That has always sounded like a tall order — businesses ultimately want to persuade people, not just inform them — and particularly difficult given the chatting system that’s at the centre of WhatApp itself.
Facebook has been able to rake billions in revenue each quarter from advertisers precisely because it can insert their videos and photos into its content-heavy Newsfeed. So far, attempts on Facebook messenger and elsewhere to invite “bots” from advertisers to chat to people has fallen flat - any success there needs smarter artificial intelligence behind it and so is probably some ways off. WhatsApp may have experimented with bots in the hope that it didn’t have to go down the tried-and-tested route of displaying content; Koum and his co-founder Brian Acton have been vehemently against advertising on their app since their early days, but monetizing their app in any other way does sound almost impossible.
“As a utility, we’re focused on building features that will be used around the world by our 1.2 billion users,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told us. “Over time, we’ve seen a big uptick in users sharing rich content, such as photos, videos and GIFs on WhatsApp. We wanted to offer an simple, secure, and reliable way for people to share this type of content with all their contacts at once.” Although Status is for all intents and purposes a copy of Snapchat’s Stories, the feature actually goes back to the roots of why WhatsApp was built in the first place.
In 2009, when Jan Koum started building what would become the most popular messaging app in the wold, he started off by building a status app. “Jan was showing me his address book,” Koum’s friend and entrepreneur Alex Fishman told me. “His thinking was it would be really cool to have statuses next to individual names of the people.” The idea was that if you were going to the gym, in a meeting, or had a low-battery, you could let people know the situation so they knew not to call you, or at least could know what was going on. Hence the name, WhatsApp, or what’s up.
Koum got his friends to download the app and it basically worked, but it wasn’t getting much traction. Then Apple introduced push notifications, meaning that every time someone updated their status, everyone got “pinged.” So Koum’s friends started changing their status updates to things like “I’m on my way.” Suddenly they weren't just updating their friends, but sending a message. Rather accidentally, one of the most important pivots in Silicon Valley history - right up there with Uber introducing Uber X and blasting a hole in the taxi industry - happened almost overnight, and WhatsApp’s users quickly swelled beyond Koum’s circle of friends in San Jose, to 250,000.
Five years later, Facebook bought Koum’s former status-updating app for $19 billion, and the rest as they say, is history. WhatsApp has always retained the original status update next to each user’s name, along with their profile photo. Today’s Status feature won’t replace that. It will be a new, separate tab with a + sign that takes users straight to the WhatsApp camera. Tap that button and you'll also see updates from other friends and family - which is where the real behavioural change for WhatsApp users will come in.
Friends can reply to the new “status” by tapping the reply button, which will be sent as a new WhatsApp message.
By Parmy Olson