The latest WhatsApp update has been announced and it comes with a new feature called Channels, which will enable one-way broadcasting on the Meta owned app for the first time.
WhatsApp Channels will appear in a new section of the app called Updates and allow organizations and creators to set up followable groups where only the owners are permitted to send messages, essentially creating a part of the app that functions as a Twitter-esq news feed.
It represents major move for WhatsApp as it looks to explore its B2C potential, with digital marketers in particular likely to be foaming at the mouth at the possibility of leveraging this social media tool to attract more customers.
What Are WhatsApp Channels?
Take a closer look and WhatsApp Channels seem remarkably familiar, at least if you've used social media in the last 10 years.
They most closely resemble a Twitter feed, whereby individuals will be able to follow (and be invited to follow) content and updates from organizations like public bodies and sports teams.
Meta announced that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Premier League winners Manchester City would be among the first users of Channels, which is being launched initially in Singapore and Columbia.
Global rollout will follow, and eventually people will be able to follow creators and other individual accounts. The similarities to Instagram are also there in terms of raw functionality, though it seems unlikely that WhatsApp will ever become quite as visual as its fellow Meta owned app.
Once opened, Channels will look just like a normal chat in WhatsApp, though you won't be able to message back in the main feed. Channel owners will be able to share different types of assets, including text, photos, videos and polls.
As well as organizations like Man City, early official screenshots suggest interest groups will feature in Channels, which borrows from one of Facebook's more popular features at the height of its powers.
What's the Big Picture?
Yes, WhatsApp is owned by Meta and Meta also owns Facebook. This might seem like a boring corporate family tree, except that Facebook has been steadily losing appeal amongst the younger users that make up such a valuable demographic for advertisers.
The social network may still be the largest in the world by some distance, but data from the Pew Research Center is damning: as of 2022, just 32% of teens reported using Facebook, which is down 39% from 2014/15 when 71% were active on the platform.
WhatsApp Channels seems like a play on Meta's part to reclaim some of the influence it used to exert over the coveted youth demographic, now by and large enjoyed by TikTok.
No one is suggesting Channels will achieve anything like that level of popularity, but given the bulk of the technology behind the new feature will already exist within the Meta stable, it seems like a low-risk experiment for Mark Zuckerberg and co.
WhatsApp Privacy Debate Gets New Twist
This is where things get a bit murky. One of the main reasons WhatsApp has become so popular over the years is its promise that messages use end-to-end encryption, which basically means that they claim to be completely secure and unable to be tracked by the police and other government agencies.
Despite advertising Channels as a “private way” to follow things that matter to you, the apparent guarantee of privacy when using WhatsApp will actually come to an end with the introduction of Channels.
The WhatsApp blog post introducing the feature says that: “Channels are not end-to-end encrypted by default.” It adds that there might be “some cases” where end-to-end encrypted channels make sense, citing non-profits and health bodies as examples, but doesn't elaborate further.
On the one hand, this is probably a good thing, as it will stop criminals from harnessing WhatsApp Channels for illegal purposes and WhatsApp scams from spreading even more widely than they already do.
Conversely, it does mean that WhatsApp won't be able to claim that it's 100% secure any more. Dropping end-to-end encryption, even on a limited scope, heralds a major shift away from the app's original purpose and Meta's detractors will no doubt jump on the revelation as proof that the WhatsApp overlords don't really care about your privacy.
Watch this space, as more is sure to be revealed once WhatsApp Channels launch more widely in the coming months.
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