WhatsApp – bringing people together

ZAHARI Affandi and Shamsuddin Abu Bakar live hardly a kilometre away from each other in Bangi. Since they left Utusan Melayu 35 years ago, they have never met.

Zahari left earlier than Shamsud-din. He joined another newspaper group while Shamsuddin became a press officer to a minister.

Zahari is also a well-known creative writer with novels Bulan Merah Di Tiga Kuala, Kunang-Kunang and Mencari Cerah Di Hujung Tanjung to his credit. When someone initiated a WhatsApp group for former Utusan Melayu reporters, they found each other again. There are 109 others who are “reunited” in a group they labelled “Buletin Suara Keramat” or BSK.

The story of Zahari and Shamsud-din is replicated millions of times in the cyber world today.

Long-lost friends are able to communicate with each other thanks to the hottest social media application.

Families and relatives are “talking” now. School friends who had lost contact for years are now one WhatsApp away from each other.

There are WhatsApp groups created for all intents and purposes. Everyone with a smartphone can be a member of a WhatsApp group.

I know someone who is a member of 34 WhatsApp groups. That includes groups for family members, alumni, a near-by surau, neighbourhood watch, club, and even one to communicate with his grocer.

As a politician, he has engagement with almost everyone that matters, from almost all layers of the political construct – a total of 15 political groups!

It makes a lot of sense to use WhatsApp. It is easy and free. One can download pictures, videos and voice recordings as well as messages.

The short messaging system (SMS) was a hit when it started in the early 1980s. Everyone was SMS-ing back then. By 2010, it had 3.5 billion active users.

According to reports, global SMS business was worth US$100bil (RM409bil) two years ago. Those who do not have smartphones are still using SMS. During its best years in 2010, an average of 193,000 SMSes were sent per second.

SMS proved to be the Holy Grail of communication. Suddenly, everyone could communicate. It was simple and easy to use. For billions out there, it was the only means of communication. It changed everything, even business and politics.

But now the world is going the WhatsApp way. While it is true Facebook is still the most popular social platform on the Internet, WhatsApp is changing the cyber landscape.

The story of WhatsApp is as interesting as any other successful Internet initiative – Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo or Apple. When Jan Koum and Brian Acton founded WhatsApp, they didn’t realise they were transforming the world of communication.

Like all successful start-ups, they were equipped with nothing more than bloated ambition, little money and support from sympathetic friends.

According to Wikipedia, by 2013 its user base swelled to 230 million monthly users and by April 2014, it claimed to have 500 million monthly active users.

At least 700 million photos and 100 million videos were shared daily. Each day, 10 billion messages were sent out by users. By August 2014, WhatsApp was adding about 25 million new users a month.

By January 2015, it had more than 600 million active users. This February, it registered its one-billionth user. It is hardly six years old.

It is a phenomenon in itself, making it the most globally popular messaging application. In 2014, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for a staggering US$19bil (RM77.7bil).

Hardly a few months earlier, a venture capitalist valued the company at one-tenth of that. Facebook must have seen massive potential in WhatsApp.

Every creation in the digital era has its problems. SMS, referred to by its detractors as the “aberrant world of abbreviations, numerals and pictorial icons”, became the “Wild West” of communication.

Anything goes. Language purists have every reason to be alarmed. With the advent of SMS, written language as we knew it was undergoing major shifts in form and functions.

So too WhatsApp. While SMS needed brevity, WhatsApp has more room to manoeuvre. While Twitter is confined by its 140-letter format, WhatsApp allows lengthy messages to be posted.

The written language has its own conventions, syntaxes and structures. But in the world of SMS and WhatsApp, we are witnessing a “linguistic centaur” – part speech, part writing – and a bit of both or neither.

Say goodbye to the old, cherished way of formal writing that is structured, formal, expository, perhaps even verbose. Like SMS, WhatsApp is changing formal language, perhaps forever.

WhatsApp can also be a tool of mass destruction. It is powerful as it is hugely accessible.

It is fast becoming a cut-and-paste medium used unwittingly to spread the good, the bad and even the ugly in the cyber world. Users are inundated with mostly useless information and bombarded with either religious or political messages they don’t really need or believe in.

In many cases, lies beget lies. And worse, we forward what we receive without even batting an eyelid.

But WhatsApp is bringing people together, especially the older generation. In their younger days, they were busy pursuing careers and raising families, but later on in life, they have the luxury to find the space to reflect and to go down memory lane.

People like Zahari and Shamsuddin.

  • Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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Opinion , Johan Jaaffar , columnist


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