Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 June 2019

WhatsApp's new ads won't appear directly in your chats – yet

The ads will appear in the Insta-stories-like function called status – which I don't think anyone uses

The red number notification on WhatsApp can be anxiety inducing - the app can be a cluttered and overwhelming place, and we imagine ads won't help. But still, let's be honest, we like the convenience of it, don't we? AFP
The red number notification on WhatsApp can be anxiety inducing - the app can be a cluttered and overwhelming place, and we imagine ads won't help. But still, let's be honest, we like the convenience of it, don't we? AFP

Last week, WhatsApp announced, via its parent company Facebook, that ads will start appearing in the messaging app from 2020.

This goes directly against WhatsApp's original message in 2012 that it would never have ads. "Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product," the company wrote at the time.

But then, WhatsApp was sold to Facebook in 2014 because money talks. At the time, there was an agreement to not monetise the app for five years. That period is coming to an end. Hence, ads.

But, the ads won't be in chats, for now

Anyone who has multiple active WhatsApp groups will know that the app can be a cluttered place.

How many of you would forego being able to easily send video messages to family back home, for free, in a moral stance against ads? Honestly, not me

The red number notification flashing up with 27 or 65 on your phone screen can be overwhelming, so the thought of adding advertising into those groups is anxiety inducing. But, fear not (for now), the announcement made last week was that WhatsApp ads will only appear in the 'status' function.

Which, to be honest, I don't think anyone in the UAE uses.

The status function isn't just the pithy line you put about yourself ('too busy, no voicenotes' etc), it's actually an ephemeral storytelling tool much like Insta stories, via which you can show pictures and videos off to the people who follow you on WhatsApp.

Open your WhatsApp now, and click on status, and you'll see you have the option to "add status update". That's where the ads will be. This means I remain unfazed because, to be honest, I didn't know about this feature until today.

But is this just a gateway?

With ads hitting the WhatsApp status by 2020, it is quite likely they will start creeping into other, more frequently used, parts of the app soon. Perhaps inside chats, or in the screen where all of your chats are listed, or even, shudder, as pre-rolls to videos.

Who really knows, but I'd be very surprised if status ads are the final frontier of WhatsApp's monetisation drive.

Back in 2012, before WhatsApp was bought by Facebook, the messaging app wrote this about ads: "These days companies know literally everything about you, your friends, your interests, and they use it all to sell ads.

"At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it's all being logged and collated and sliced and packaged and shipped out."

But do we care enough to forego the convenience?

This seven-year-old statement from WhatsApp is very true, and frightening in a Black Mirror sort of way, and many have taken to Twitter this week to complain about the new WhatsApp ads, and say that they will be deleting the app and finding another option. (They took to Twitter, where there are many ads – the irony is not lost.)

When it comes to these kinds of things, I think it's important to be honest about our user behaviour: how many of you would forego being able to easily and quickly send video messages and voice notes to friends and family back home, for free, in a moral stance against ads? Would you choose to pay for WhatsApp? (I might, but I certainly wouldn't want to give it up.)

For me, being able to easily get cute video messages from my nieces and nephews back home, is more important than having to wade through some ads. And that's probably why I'm the perfect 'product'.

Updated: May 29, 2019 10:57 AM

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