Less than 1m South Africans forecast to boycott WhatsApp

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An overwhelming majority of South Africans are less likely to ditch WhatsApp after the messaging and voice over IP service recently introduced a controversial update to its privacy policy.

The Facebook-owned messaging app sparked a public outcry on social media recently after Android and iOS users received an in-app notification about its new policy, which allows WhatsApp to share certain data with Facebook – an option that users previously had a chance to opt out of.

Starting from 8 February, users have been prompted in the app to accept the updated terms in order to continue using WhatsApp, which has about two billion active users globally and an estimated 20 million users in SA.

Some of the key updates would include how WhatsApp processes users' data; how businesses can use Facebook hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats; and how WhatsApp partners with Facebook to offer integrations across the Facebook company products, said WhatsApp in the notification.

The new terms of service led to scores of frustrated users across the globe boycotting WhatsApp for rival messaging apps Telegram and Signal, with Telegram scoring nearly 2.2 million downloads, and Signal adding an additional 100 000 users over the weekend.

However, analysts are of the view that, locally, WhatsApp will not lose a significant number of users as its competitors have a smaller user base in SA.

“WhatsApp will certainly lose some local users, but I am not sure if the loss will be significant. WhatsApp is particularly popular in SA and continues to have considerably more downloads on a daily basis than either Telegram or Signal,” says Dobek Pater, telecoms analyst at Africa Analysis.

“Locals are more likely to start using Telegram and/or Signal (and/or another app) as an additional application concurrently with WhatsApp to remain in touch with those individuals who move away from WhatsApp altogether.”

Pater points out that those who make the move to other messaging apps are likely to be “professional” groups more so than consumers.

One also needs to keep in mind that in SA, a larger portion of the mobile subscriber base still uses either basic 2G or feature phones in contrast to more developed, more affluent markets, which have a slew of messenger apps, he adds.

Telegram has around 400 million global users (20% of WhatsApp) while Signal has an estimate 20 million (10% of WhatsApp).

Arthur Goldstuck, founder of research consultancy World Wide Worx, believes the number of South Africans who jump ship from WhatsApp will likely be relatively small and the messaging app will remain in the fortunate position of continuing to benefit from the network effect, as its vast user base provides enormous value to new users.

“I will be surprised if as many as one million South Africans ditch WhatsApp – this will barely make a dent, given the fact that new users are still coming on board. Globally, WhatsApp will lose millions of users as a result of the new terms and conditions, but this will be balanced or possibly even surpassed by the number of new users coming on board. In effect, WhatsApp growth will be slowed rather than reversed, for now,” he notes.

The biggest impact of the new terms and conditions has been to make South Africans and users globally aware of Telegram and Signal, adds Goldstuck.

Arthur Goldstuck, founder of World Wide Worx
Arthur Goldstuck, founder of World Wide Worx

How Facebook will use WhatsApp

According to Goldstuck, Facebook's ostensible use of WhatsApp data is geared to more efficient targeting by advertisers and higher personalisation of the ads that users see.

The purpose of the new terms of service is to improve the effectiveness of Facebook advertising, which will in turn drive up advertising revenue, he comments.

“Due to the near-monopoly Facebook enjoys over social media and instant messaging data gathering, this gives it a massively unfair advantage over any other media entity attempting to attract advertising. In the same way that Google's dominance of search and mobile user data has enabled it to monopolise search-based advertising, Facebook will do the same with social and messaging-based advertising.”

Pater points out that WhatsApp users being subjected to advertising is a small price to pay for a free and convenient service.

“For consumers, the greatest impact at this stage appears to be targeted advertising on WhatsApp. This has been in the offing for some time anyway and WhatsApp users will have been subjected to advertising on the app at any rate. This is a small price to pay versus the inconvenience of moving entirely to another application, which does not have nearly as wide a penetration as WhatsApp,” concludes Pater.

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