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Are we really free to choose how we communicate online?

When WhatsApp announced their new privacy policy in January 2021, detailing what types of information it was sharing with Facebook (now Meta), its parent company, suddenly millions of WhatsApp users started to install other secure messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram.

Postdoc Carla Griggio
Postdoc Carla Griggio. Photo: private

Back then, it looked as if WhatsApp was losing millions of users to other apps; however, a research study conducted by Carla Griggio, Midas Nouwens and Clemens Klokmose from Aarhus University suggests that lots of users tried leaving WhatsApp, but most failed.

In short, 25.97% of their users wanted to switch to other apps due to the update, but only a quarter of those succeeded. In total, only 0.5% users uninstalled WhatsApp. The data shows that installing a new app is easy, but leaving the app is not. This is mainly due to strong network effects, differences in functionality of different apps, and feeling a loss of control over the distribution of contacts across apps. 

This research contributes new evidence of a need for interoperability between communication platforms and calls for more research on software architectures that prevent network effects by design.

For more information on the great messaging-app migration (that didn’t really happen), read a summary of the upcoming CHI 22 research paper “Caught in the Network: The Impact of WhatsApp’s 2021 Privacy Policy Update on Users’ Messaging App Ecosystems” written by Human-Computer Interaction researcher Carla Griggio, from Department of Computer Science at Aarhus University, on Medium: https://medium.com/@carlagriggio/the-great-messaging-app-migration-that-didnt-really-happen-56af637bc5d8