As has been the topic of much conversation both on and offline for sometime, Facebook recently announced its acquisition of the popular cross-platform mobile messaging app WhatsApp. The knowledge of this piece of information even helped me propel my team to victory at Trivia one night, at least for one round. Well, actually most other teams got this question correct, but this comes as no surprise as this acquisition has been making headlines for a long time. However, why has it? And more importantly, why should we care?
With WhatsApp, smartphone and tablet users (with an Internet connection) can exchange messages without having to pay for SMS. This means that even users across countries and continents can essentially “text.” Using Facebook’s mobile application, however, users can pretty much already do this using the message tab. Stripped down, WhatsApp allows users the ability to directly connect with one another, anytime and anywhere, without all the extra fluff. You would think that Facebook would see WhatsApp as a competitor for a feature it already offers in its own package. The Financial Times even believes WhatsApp “has done to SMS on mobile phones what Skype did to international calling on landlines.” On Facebook’s behalf then, why try to beat the competition, when you can just buy them instead? Although, this strategy isn’t always successful as evidenced by Facebook’s recent failed attempt to try and purchase Snapchat.
What does this acquisition mean for users though? I ask this question as I recently experienced Facebook blocking a phrase I tried messaging to a friend of mine. While the phrase was not used with malicious intent, Facebook did not agree. With the current net-neutrality issues, the Comcast/Time Warner buyout, and debate over who controls what content is allowed to be posted online, Facebook seems headed for a potential social media monopoly. While things may seem okay for now, if in the future the FCC dictates that these types of organizations need to take responsibility for the content that is posted to them, we need to be aware that there may just one big brother overseeing all our interactions across platforms. With a monopoly on social media, then who is to say whose freedom of speech is safe?Katherine Winslow, Graduate Student Master of Arts in Emerging Media Loyola University Maryland