WhatsApp is a popular messaging service, but it’s also a social media platform. That might seem a bit counter-intuitive at first. But you’ll agree with me once you understand how we define social media. Let’s start with a simple definition of a social media platform:
“A web-based and mobile-based Internet Application that allows the creation, access and exchange of user-generated content.“
Whether you personally agree with this definition or not, WhatsApp easily ticks all the boxes. It strengthens our hypothesis that we might be onto something. While WhatsApp was originally designed as a messaging service, it mostly functions as a social media platform these days (similar to Facebook or Twitter).
Don’t just trust me on that. Take it from the scientists that studied this.
In a 2011 paper in Business Horizons, Kietzmann et al. propose a framework to define social media platforms. They describe the key building blocks any social media platform should have. According to the research paper, there are seven functional building blocks of social media:
- Identity: The extent to which users reveal themselves.
- Conversations: The extent to which users communicate.
- Sharing: The extent to which users exchange, distribute and receive content.
- Presence: The extent to which users know if others are available.
- Relationships: The extent to which users relate to each other.
- Reputation: The extent to which users know the social standing of others and content.
- Groups: The extent to which users have the ability to form communities.
Let’s try to apply these seven building blocks to WhatsApp. If we look at it, they fit the popular messaging platform like a glove. Below, I’ll discuss each characteristic individually to help you understand. Let me know if you agree!
1. WhatsApp Users Can Reveal Their Identity
While privacy on WhatsApp is a hot topic these days, the ability to reveal your identity is at the heart of social media. Simply put, users should be able to share information about themselves:
Identity covers all the basic information about who you are as a person. Whereas a platform like Facebook can go really far with this (they will even give users the option to reveal their whole family tree), WhatsApp is a bit more moderate.
The app provides users with the ability to share their profile picture, name, and current status. Users connect with a mobile phone number, so that’s not exactly private either. It’s pretty revealing, but nothing crazy.
2. WhatsApp Is Build For Conversations
The one characteristic where WhatsApp rises above the competition is definitely conversations. Users have the ability to have in-depth private conversations through texting or calling. They can also have public conversations in a group setting.
Whereas most social platforms will shove in-app advertisements down user’s throats, texting or calling through WhatsApp is completely free and without advertising. This sometimes raises questions about privacy on WhatsApp, but monetization is kept completely out of the eye of the user.
Talking with text or voice is definitely a key aspect of ‘being social’. WhatsApp absolutely excels here. It goes above and beyond the competition.
3. Sharing Is Easy On WhatsApp
Remember when we used to send files through e-mail? Me neither. WhatsApp makes that old-fashioned stuff redundant. It makes it so much easier to share a photo, video, or link to a webpage with other people.
Sharing media tends to be better on WhatsApp compared to other social media platforms:
- WhatsApp allows users to ‘target’ who to share media with
- There’s no incentive to get showered with likes, but sharing media will generally initiate a deeper conversation (even in group chats)
- Compression of images and videos on WhatsApp makes it easier to share large files
- You can share media through text with someone you’re in a voice chat with
4. WhatsApp Publicly Shows User Presence
User presence or availability has everything to do with “showing who is online”. WhatsApp does this all the time: you can see when users were last seen online at all times. Except when that user has intentionally hidden the last seen online status for privacy reasons.
But WhatsApp goes beyond this now. They’ve hopped on the trend of Instagram stories and Twitter fleets with the ‘WhatsApp Status‘. Users can now instantly share what they’ve been up to with all their contacts.
These statuses only show for 24 hours at a time, so they’re meant to be temporary. Presence in this way initiates further communication, without having to go into your chat screen to view when someone was last online, which is easy to hide even on WhatsApp Web.
5. WhatsApp Puts Social Relationships First
One-on-one messaging is a very personal experience between two people. It makes it easy to maintain social relationships, or even form completely new ones. This is the very core of what social media was supposed to be.
Whereas the traditional platforms incentivize passive engagement, a messaging service usually requires active participation. If you want to stay in the loop, you have to socialize with people.
Unlike giving meaningless likes, hearts, or similar systems, the act of talking is where social media flourishes. It might not exactly be the thing most people acknowledge as “social media”, but it really doesn’t get more social than that.
6. ‘WhatsApp Status’ Pushes User Reputation
Building reputation is probably the one social media building block where WhatsApp is ‘lacking’. And yet, one could argue that sharing of 24-hour statuses is a form of pushing user reputation. It’s a method of ‘showing off your social status’ to your friends and family.
User reputation is a tricky metric, because it can be interpreted in many different ways. Essentially, this factor is related to the ability to form a social hierarchy. It’s perhaps the most visible in larger WhatsApp groups, where you have people that take on certain social roles:
- Admins or owners
Admittedly, WhatsApp does not show how many contacts you have on your phone. It doesn’t let others know about the number of likes you got on your temporary status post. Driving engagement isn’t really a thing on WhatsApp. It’s a lot more private than other social platforms.
7. WhatsApp Groups Are Real Communities
This overview hasn’t really touched upon WhatsApp group chats a whole lot. But that doesn’t mean that they’re essential to the success of the social platform. The app allows users to create their own group and invite any number of users (up to a maximum of 256 participants).
Groups have their own identity: they can have custom names and a custom profile picture. The owner of the group has the ability to assign roles to certain participants, although this is a relatively limited feature.
Once a user is inside one of these communities, communities are formed. This can be based on any number of topics. From admirers of a specific dog breed, to local crime prevention app groups. But it can also be a small group of family members that like to share pictures of their kids.
The downside of communities on WhatsApp is obvious. Finding these groups is pretty hard, unless you get invited by others. Groups are basically invite-only, which diminishes the network effect of the group. Compare this to Facebook, where you can apply for an invite to a closed community. Regardless of this, communities are a core feature of what makes WhatsApp a real social media platform.
What do you think about WhatsApp? Can it be considered a social media platform, or should it be categorized as a messaging app?