WhatsApp with that?

Just an image representing WhatsApp to break the text up a bit. That’s all. Image by microservios, CC BY 2.0
  • Periodicity From seventeenth century villagers asking ‘what news?’ of visitors, to newspapers three times a week then daily, to the telegraph, to radio, to television, to 24 hour news, to social media, the transmission of information has sped up to the point where we are always on. WhatsApp brings instantaneity and an irregular, reactive rhythm* to information which can be difficult to ignore. On the plus side, you may be able to get the information you want and the answer you need quickly, but bombarding decision-makers with information and inquisition might lead to an expectation of rapid decisions (made without reflection), or decision fatigue.
  • Ease of use Combine that instantaneity with user-friendly interfaces and the fact you can pull WhatsApp out of your pocket, and you have a tool that people want to use. That ease might invite a stream of consciousness rather than any rationalisation or prioritisation of information, overwhelming the recipient (see rapid decisions and decision fatigue, above).
  • Convergence Media policy wonks were very exercised by this in the early 2000s, as the internet blurred the boundaries between previously distinct text, audio and visual content (broadcasters publishing print! Newspapers broadcasting!). We now barely remark on it (which says something in itself). The appeal of platforms like WhatsApp that allow us to easily share different types of information is obvious.
  • Disintermediation On the subject of noughties media wonk buzzwords… this was a big one: online self-publishing, social media etc suddenly allowed individuals and institutions — that had once relied on the media to get their message across — to communicate directly with the public. It applies here in politicians, lobbyists and the like being able to communicate directly without having to go through diary secretaries, official minuting or government servers.
  • Fragmentation Not unrelated is the fragmentation of communication and information across multiple different conversations, platforms and devices. A challenge for accountability — but also being able to find the information you need.
  • Many-to-many interaction WhatsApp offers one-to-one conversation, but also many-to-many with overlapping groups. This can institutionalise originally random groups, excluding people inadvertently (or very advertently). It may also increase the chance of messages being leaked (and encourage performative contributions in the expectation that they might be — see various Tory MP group chats**).
  • The fact it’s a technology at all A lot of schemes and salacious gossip would previously have been shared in person (or perhaps over the phone), rather than being recorded on WhatsApp and other platforms. There is an argument that this could lead to greater accountability: in the same way some say using artificial intelligence and algorithms in decision-making forces processes to be written down and cognitive biases to be unpicked, communications being written out could make decisions and discussions easier to scrutinise. But, well, no. See ‘disintermediation’, above, as well as encryption and deletion (whether deliberate or because of different subscription plans — e.g. Slack). Also, who’s doing the ‘recording’? WhatsApp is an infrastructure provided by a private company, Facebook. A friend tweeted at some point in 2020 that they couldn’t remember the last conversation they’d had that wasn’t moderated by a tech company. The ease of use and ubiquity makes that fact very easy to forget.
  • Public vs private, ephemeral vs eternal Discussions have raged about the porous borders between private and public ever since social media became a thing. It’s more obvious with something like Facebook or Twitter — posting content that’s partly within semi-closed networks but also more widely accessible — but it’s similar with WhatsApp, given how big some groups can be and the propensity in politics to leak some of the discussions. Not unrelated is the contradiction in such content being ephemeral — quickly forgotten (or even deleted) as the conversation moves on — and eternal, forever findable (and screenshottable).
Another one. Image by Tim Reckmann, CC BY 2.0.
Here’s one of Whitehall, for some variety. Image by Defence Images, CC BY-NC 2.0.

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Freelance, gavinfreeguard.com. All things (usually government) data. Dataviz etc newsletter at twitter.com/WarningGraphicC.

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Gavin Freeguard

Gavin Freeguard

Freelance, gavinfreeguard.com. All things (usually government) data. Dataviz etc newsletter at twitter.com/WarningGraphicC.

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