By MARIANA ZEPEDA ’14
On Feb. 19, Facebook announced its largest purchase yet. The social media networking giant has bought Whatsapp for a whopping $19 billion (give or take), stunning Facebook users and business analysts everywhere. The general public response was: Facebook just bought what?
Whatsapp, an instant messaging site that allows users to communicate instantly with anyone in the world for a meager $0.99 a year, is not well-known here in the United States. Whatsapp operates online, allowing users to bypass text-messaging charges to text friends and family a world away. Notably, Whatsapp has a much higher popularity abroad than in this country. As an international student, I use Whatsapp on a daily basis; it’s probably the social media network I use the most (ok, fine, second to Snapchat). Thanks to the app on my phone, I can text friends and family back in Mexico or send them photos of the mounds of snow here in Boston that refuse to melt away. Indeed, a main reason behind Facebook’s buy is Whatsapp’s global popularity. The Facebook blog boasts that Whatsapp connects millions of people worldwide.
Jan Koum, Whatsapp’s co-founder and CEO, will join the Facebook team, though Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger will operate autonomously.
Business analysts continue to puzzle over the implications of Mark Zuckerberg’s splurge. Conspiracy theories are afoot: Some fear that Zuckerberg’s masterplan is to terminate Whatsapp completely in order to carve out the market for Facebook Messenger. Still others worry that Facebook will ultimately pilfer information from the estimated 450 million users of Whatsapp.
Forbes’s Maseena Ziegler writes that this is a genuine concern. One of Whatsapp’s greatest attributes is the fact that the app does not collect information from its users the way that Facebook does—to sign up, you simply have to provide the company with your phone number. In practical terms, this means that Whatsapp does not gain access to its users’ locations, personal information or viewing preferences. This is because Whatsapp does not rely as heavily as Facebook on advertisements. But Facebook hardly needs to amp up its advertising revenue.
Analysts also wonder whether this buy is linked to Facebook’s fear of losing its younger demographics in lieu of a much older user population; and in fact the presence of teenagers is dwindling on this social media site, as young users move towards other networks like Instagram. Though Zuckerberg is certainly the type to plan ahead, Whatsapp came with an unprecedentedly large price tag—would shifting demographics really justify such a large purchase?
Many believe that this is simply another one of Facebook’s efforts to continue colonizing the social media industry, and I must say that I agree. It’s scary to think of Facebook gaining yet another foothold in social media and tightening its almost autocratic grip on our lives.
Let’s hope Snapchat continues to spurn Zuckerberg.