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WhatsApp and the Domestication of Users (seirdy.one)
168 points by upofadown on Jan 31, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 108 comments

I am not sure where to begin.

WhatsApp didn't create any of these. Before that it was MSN, and before MSN it was ICQ / AIM. Instant messenger has been around for a very long time.

Every Single criticism of WhatsApp could be said to any of the above.

I felt the author made it as WhatsApp was specifically designed from Facebook for target advertising. For a long time, even after Facebook acquisition WhatsApp has little to do with its parent company, other than moving their insanely great Super Size FreeBSD Box to thousands of tiny little Linux blade.

WhatsApp used to charge iOS user $1. And $1 / Year for Android. Despite that they still grown to hundreds of millions of users.

WhatApp grew because it was the only IM that worked on Smartphone. Thanks to Erlang. Yes. ICQ didn't bother. Microsoft refuse to accept Smartphone is the future of computing hence there never was MSN on Smartphone. Other contender tried but none of them managed to Scale. I still remember all my colleagues and friends used to download instant messenger on our phone to test them out, creating a group and basically DDoS each other until the system or network crash. No IM was able to handle the traffic load, not only did WhatsApp does it many times better than their competitors, they also had almost all platform support, from Symbian to Blackberry.

It then made its point about User domestication. Which really is a FOSS, GPL, Richard Stallman angle on Software. I argue it would be the same with many of today's software.

Absolutely! Also prior to WhatsApp messaging was even more of a walled garden.

The ‘best’ was BBM - I lived in Canada for a year and you pretty much needed a blackberry to message friends because that’s what everyone had.

I had moved back to the U.K. when the iPhone came out, and I originally didn’t want it because a lack of BBM meant it would be more difficult to keep in touch with my Canadian friends. When WhatsApp came out and adoption was super quick I could finally jump ship, because it meant overseas texting for free without BBM.

Of course if blackberry wasn’t greedy and was forward thinking, they could have copied BBM and made it available on other platforms, and if done well it would probably have been a massive success.

So I agree that it’s not accurate to imply that everything was super open prior to WhatsApp - they spotted a gap in the market and wrote the best software to fill it that was available at the time.

Lol, blackberry eventually launched BBM on iOS and Android, but it was too late by then. They really thought they could keep other phones from gaining market by locking in BBM to blackberry only.

BBM has one great feature that I haven't seen replicated by any other platform - and it's so obvious, I assume RIM must have patented it: Sending a contact your real-time location for a set period of time. It was very convenient to be able to send someone you're supposed to meet an automatically updating location status.

WhatsApp has this.

Google Location Sharing does this, and i can access it from inside the SMS app:


WhatsApp: so it does! Looks like this was just added a couple months back?

Even FB Messenger has this!

Indeed. I guess I gave up on any other messenger supporting this years ago. Looks like it was added to FBM in 2017.

WhatsApp has this.

Telegram does this

"I argue it would be the same with many of today's software" And you are right, that's why todays internet is more a web oligarchy than a democratic web. Clients and Services instead of protocols.

> Microsoft refuse to accept Smartphone is the future of computing hence there never was MSN on Smartphone.

This. When WhatsApp came around, it wasn't free, but it was the a lightweight cross-platform mobile chat that worked. The only other smartphone-friendly chat app was Blackberry Messenger (BBM) -- and only on Blackberry. iMessage didn't exist.

Google Chat was light and unobtrusive on the desktop, and there were some 3rd party clients for GChat on iOS, but Google then decided to throw out GChat and build a few new chat systems from scratch. MSN Messenger never worked IIRC, and improvements to Skype came too little too late.

WhatsApp was free. At least for the 1st year it was, and then you were supposed to pay 1 USD per year. 0.084 cents per month, which was also basically free. I paid till FB made it totally free, but I know a lot of friends that did not pay and they had their "free-year" extended. At least in Android.

> When WhatsApp came around, it wasn't free.

For me, the fact that WhatsApp wasn't free was a plus. "Hey, maybe for once I am not the product". How naive of me.

To clarify, the fact that WhatsApp wasn’t free (but very cheap) was a positive in my mind as well. I didn’t intend “not free” in my comment above to be derisory.

Also, to add some nuance: WhatsApp wasn’t free (ie it was a subscription based app) mainly in US / Western Europe IIRC; but was in fact free, as in no subscription charges, in some lower-income country app stores, eg India.

[Am author] I chose WhatsApp because it was a good example for a case study and because recent events made it a hot topic. I also described two non-WhatsApp examples exhibiting user domestication (one of which wasn't even an instant messenger). It wasn't my intention to imply that WhatsApp was the first instant messenger to exhibit these behaviors; I even linked to a Wikipedia article comparing instant messenger protocols to illustrate how WhatsApp wasn't a newcomer.

That being said, several others have mentioned how WhatsApp wasn't the first IM platform of its kind. When a misinterpretation is this prevalent, it's the author's (i.e. my) fault: https://xkcd.com/1984/

I've since updated the article to clarify that point. Diff: https://git.sr.ht/~seirdy/seirdy.one/commit/93846a469b5581ec...

> It then made its point about User domestication. Which really is a FOSS, GPL, Richard Stallman angle on Software. I argue it would be the same with many of today's software.

So did I; I listed two more examples. User domestication is a widespread problem worth addressing. WhatsApp is a good example.

WhatsApp is an extremely apt and relevant example. None of the other examples has the reach WhatsApp has: literally over 90% of the adult population in some countries — I know the Netherlands is close to this. That's huge!

A minor comment on the second rule for WhatsApp users:

> Everyone’s mobile device must run an operating system supported by said client.

This also implies that everyone must own a (not too old) smartphone running either of those two OSes, with the user having accepted a EULA for the respective app-stores. I feel strongly that the requirement of using a smartphone even when a (not too old) desktop or laptop computer is available and technically capable of performing the same client-side tasks is a significant curbing of a user's software freedom. It may warrant mentioning explicitly.

Social media and instant messaging giants of the world are incentivised to prefer the captive user over the paying user. (I prefer the term “lock-in” over “domestication” to highlight the ethically questionable nature of it.)

A piece of US legislation could address this. For example, if a business that connects people to people—such as a social network, an instant messenger, etc.—grows larger than X users, it could be required to allow fully-featured third-party clients to exist, or it can’t operate.

(This is not dissimilar from how mobile providers are required to facilitate phone number transfers, so that you can switch to another provider and not lose your number.)

If big players are required to offer a fully featured API, and the user can switch freely, they would be incentivised to stop taking their money from the advertiser and charge the user directly, becoming a commodity like electricity.

That way you could switch between messaging providers freely, while using your preferred client app. Messaging services will be competing on which one is the most reliable, ethical, has the most complete API, and so on.

This is pretty much what the ACCESS Act proposes: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/07/legislative-path-inter...

I actually wish that proposal was leaner… unless they intentionally put in extra parts they could sacrifice during negotiation.

“Prove that a third-party client with feature parity to yours can function on top your platform” could probably be the sole requirement, taking care of both back-end interoperability and ‘delegability’ (which to be honest I suspect is an unnecessarily obscure term).

Data portability could be a good next step, but I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary to fundamentally shift incentives.

> ... social media and instant messaging giants of the world are incentivised to prefer the captive user over the paying user.

What's the incentive though? That approximately zero user would ever pay for a social media or messaging app? I think they simply have no other viable business model whatsoever.

I don’t think people are any less willing to pay for social media than they are for their phone and it’s time we recognized that.

The largest player in social wants to normalize free service and lock-in: this way its users can come but can hardly leave, competition is impossible since no one can undercut it on price, and its leverage with the advertiser approaches infinity.

Now, the moment big social is legally obligated to enable feature-complete third-party clients to exist so that users can easily switch social service providers, a company will pop up and say “we don’t make money from advertising; we’re very transparent about all our records; we provide a full API so you can keep using your favourite client app; our subscription starts at $X”. You can count that this new provider will tear out a chunk of WhatsApp’s user base.

The next day yet another provider pops up and advertises cheaper subscriptions at $X/2, further eating away at Facebook’s advertising power. FB understands that the earlier it revamps its business model, the more revenue it can generate from actually paying users; so it revises the ToS, adds paid tiers to its services and becomes very good at upselling them.

FB understands that the earlier it revamps its business model, the more revenue it can generate from actually paying users

Facebook will exploit paying users even more, since a demonstrable willingness to pay makes you a more valuable set of eyeballs for advertising. That’s the fly in the ointment.

They would either be legally liable, or must reflect this in ToS—benefitting the next provider with simpler ToS.

And remember, they would pretty much lose the ability to show ads (where mined data is used for targeting), since getting rid of them becomes as easy as switching to another client.

[Am author] The best alternative is not to need a business model for anything besides sponsoring development; there shouldn't be a single organization that needs a large sum of money to keep a platform alive. From the article:

> Not all software needs to rake in billions. Federation allows services and networks like the Fediverse and XMPP to scale up to large numbers of users without forcing a single behemoth to sell its soul to foot the bill. Although anti-domestication business models are less profitable, they still allow the creation of the same technologies that were enabled by user domestication. All that’s missing is an advertising budget; the biggest advertising some of these projects get is long unpaid blog posts.

Instead of building a platform that requires one actor to scale up to millions of users, build a platform that's simple enough for it to require less development effort and scale to only a few hundred/thousand users per federated server. Delegate hosting to the 0.05% of users willing and technical enough to run a server.

The Fediverse has scaled to millions of users with a grand total of $0.00 VC money.

Related: when people first envisioned the ideas that led to networks like the Web, sceptics would ask questions such as "Who's going to pay to make all those hyperlinks? What's the financial incentive to upload a document?"

If a system is designed right, there doesn't need to be a financial incentive (i.e., an ROI) to grow.

> if a business that connects people to people—such as a social network, an instant messenger, etc.—grows larger than X users, it could be required to allow fully-featured third-party clients to exist

I might get some of the details wrong, but AT&T was forced to let smaller ISPs or telcos into their exchanges so they could set up equipment and act as an independent ISP on AT&T's copper. This wasn't huge win for small ISPs; AT&T still got most of the DSL orders, and it had a rough time competing with cable.

Line shared DSL had a lot of problems in the US, but it worked well overseas.

For one, AT&T got most of the orders because their retail prices were often lower (sometimes quite a bit lower) than the wholesale prices they charged to smaller ISPs. It's really hard to compete like that. Add in fun things like initially line shared services were often over dry pair (no dial tone) and telephone company lineman often used dial tone to see if a pair was in use; leading to loss of service if a pair was repurposed for another customer.

The alternative for small ISPs was somehow find a way to overbuild a 3rd network in the area, or sell out to Earthlink, or to someone who sold out to Earthlink.

They never should have let the same company own the wire and provide retail service. The retail part of AT&T should have had to pay the same rates to the wire owner as everyone else. And penalties should have been applied to the lineman's employer if they caused a loss of service without properly checking the database of the wire owner company.

Alas, as you say, that's not how it happened.

As much as people like to talk up the AT&T breakup, it wasn't all that effective because it just created regional monopolies with the silly local/long distance split.

Splitting up network companies and retailers might have been more interesting, but there's still the issue of having a monopoly on the last mile of copper.

It can be different (better) in case of social—I don’t think forcing the largest player to let competitors use its infrastructure is required.

[Am author] We kinda already have this:

> If big players are required to offer a fully featured API, and the user can switch freely, they would be incentivised to stop taking their money from the advertiser and charge the user directly, becoming a commodity like electricity.

> That way you could switch between messaging providers freely, while using your preferred client app. Messaging providers will be competing on which one is the most reliable, ethical, has the most complete API, and so on.

You've...uh...literally described the Fediverse.

In addition to having multiple hosting providers/instances, there are different implementations; Mastodon and Pleroma are twitter-likes, WriteFreely is for long-form blogging, PeerTube is for video (like YouTube), PixelFed is for photos (like Instagram)...the list goes on. All these implementations share an API; someone's PeerTube video can show up in my Pleroma stream, and a Mastodon user can comment under a WriteFreely blog entry.

Mastodon-to-Mastodon migrations are quite seamless; you can keep your followers and everything. Other implementations have a bit of work to do.

EDIT: I'm afraid I worded this very poorly. I don't want to take away from what the parent comment was trying to say (far from); I'm saying that we have a useful example of what that comment describes.

Some of those third party clients will abuse user data, and then the original platform will be held responsible for allowing it.

If a client is shown to be connecting to endpoints it shouldn’t connect to, you can switch to another client.

Holding messaging service provider accountable for what a third-party client does in this scenario would be similar to holding mobile service provider accountable for actions of a phone manufacturer.

True though, in this scenario popular client apps (as well as their runtime, including OS) could become higher-value targets, and infosec research would grow more valuable.

"domestication" makes me think of "oversocialization" used in the unabomber manifesto[1].

> 24. Psychologists use the term “socialization” to designate the process by which children are trained to think and act as society demands. A person is said to be well socialized if he believes in and obeys the moral code of his society and fits in well as a functioning part of that society.

> ...

> 26. Oversocialization can lead to low self-esteem, a sense of powerlessness, defeatism, guilt, etc. One of the most important means by which our society socializes children is by making them feel ashamed of behavior or speech that is contrary to society’s expectations. If this is overdone, or if a particular child is especially susceptible to such feelings, he ends by feeling ashamed of HIMSELF. [...] And socialization is not just a matter of morality; we are socialized to conform to many norms of behavior that do not fall under the heading of morality. Thus the oversocialized person is kept on a psychological leash and spends his life running on rails that society has laid down for him. In many oversocialized people this results in a sense of constraint and powerlessness that can be a severe hardship. We suggest that oversocialization is among the more serious cruelties that human beings inflict on one another.

I removed some bits for brevity and because they're overtly political. I particularly like "Thus the oversocialized person is kept on a psychological leash and spends his life running on rails that society has laid down for him".

[1]: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/unab...

So what were his alternatives? That society be made up of loosely-connected hermits such as himself?

If you're going to have anything resembling a community, you're going to need strongly enforced norms (aka "oversocialization") that minimize internal strife and division. This is true for hunter-gatherer bands and continent-spanning civilizations.

Anti-social behavior is undesirable if everybody does it, but its also what makes a leader. Look at the discussion around CEOs having dark triad traits. We simultaneously know that we dont want most people to behave this way, but also gravitate towards those that do.

I think there is a spectrum: on one end are sheep and cows where everyone is social and as a group they are dumb but plentiful. On the other end are tigers, where everyone is antisocial, everybody is an apex predator but as a species there aren't that many because they dont cooperate. And then there are humans, ants, maybe wolves, where there is a nice mix of conformity and leadership, social and antisocial, that lets us come up with new ideas, but then fall in line behind executing them.

So yeah, society full of antisocials is pretty ineffective, but so is a society of conformists.

you don't need to be oversocialized or anti-social. You can be balanced. Being oversocialzed means you aren't taking any risks or being rebellious at all. Society needs some rebels if we want to break major milestones.

WhatsApp gained many users at first by running on most of the early feature phones (largely Java ME if I’m not mistaken). These days you target two platforms, iOS and Android, and you’re done, but back then running everywhere was a big feature.

Interesting article, I find domestication analogy quite apt.

Outside the US, texting was/is charged per-message rather than unlimited texting. It was/is very expensive to send thousands of texts vs the fixed-rate data plans.

I think it was also a timing issue. Paying per SMS was a thing in the US when texting was novel ($0.10/SMS or so, IIRC?) but the US seemed to move to unlimited texting sooner than most places. However, today in the European country I live in it's almost impossible to find plans that don't include unlimited SMS, but it perhaps happened "too late" to take over messaging now that online platforms offer effectively free international messaging and calling as well.

As a European teenager I always laughed at America for having to pay for SMS receipt. Ours were free and sending was free up to some ridiculously huge amount.

Then I started dating a girl from another town and got a $500 sms bill. Oops

This was before data, WAP was barely a thing. Circa 2004. We texted our days away at school. Got very good at touch typing under the desk.

In no way was SMS free across all of Europe.

It also depended on your plan, the cheaper the plan, the less freebies you had and parents never got their kids the top spec plan. My parents only got me a cell-phone with a pre-paid SIM for "emergencies" and didn't have enough credit on it to text too many people so IM over yahoo! messenger on the PC was used by teens for chatting at the time.

Growing up in Eastern Europe with a basic cell-phone plan, before the days of all you can talk/text, it was common to "beep"[1] people when you were on a prepaid SIM and had little or no credit on it.

[1]Calling someone and quickly hanging up after hearing the phone "ring" or "beep", and hope the person on the other end heard it and cares enough about you to spend their dime calling you back. It was also a sign of stinginess/poverty if you did this but it was very popular due to the high cost and low wages at the time.

The same thing was possible with PCs too! All the way to Windows XP, there was a built-in dial program (HyperTerminal) that let you send files and chat over the phone line directly, outside the Internet, and only the person initiating the connection would be the one paying, since it was fundamentally just a phone call.

It was also awesome because it bypassed the Internet. It could work if you were censored, didn't have an ISP or if the Internet was completely shutdown (I used it for exactly that when Egypt shutdown the Internet in Jan 2011).



Similar memories here, but I got very creative to fit inside the free SMS limit. The limit was something you'd ordinarily think ridiculous even on cheap plans, IIRC I had 1000 texts/month in the plan, and the equivalent for pre-paids was also very cheap. It turns out 1000 text messages a month is enough for everyone except teenagers in love.

Also I remember people in my circles laughing at Americans, because we believed that the US doesn't have SMS service for some reason.

It used to be around 8 cents back home per text. When you're in love, 1000 messages for 80$ was more than the average monthly wage back then..luckily most teens were on pre-paid plans.

Are you in Russia? I don't know many countries where the rate varies within the same country.

Blackberry support was also huge, as countries like Indonesia moved off BBM they migrated to WhatsApp en masse.

WhatsApp grew to its size because of its first mover advantage. The completion, SMS, had the highest cost of data transmission on the planet, so not hard to see the reason for its growth.

WhatsApp squandered their early lead with slow development and so competitors like Line, Viber, Wechat and Telegram all came later and added features and took market share. If you are an international business person, you have all these messengers installed, and more. The switching cost is low, and the only real trouble is agreeing with someone on how to connect.

> WhatsApp grew to its size because of its first mover advantage

Whaaaat? There were plenty of chat apps before WhatsApp that were free.

> WhatsApp squandered their early lead with slow development

Mmm, the story that _I_ have been told is that WhatsApp was prevented from getting any better because the desire was to get people to move to Messenger.

This has been a reasonably effective strategy, although I note their are markets (like Thailand) where everybody just switched to Line instead

Except in group chats. The switching costs are higher for those.

And chat history, if it's relevant. I think it is possible to export and browse chat history 'offline' but it's not trivial. Simply transferring my history from Android to IOS was a pain and I gave up, but I still have the backup somewhere just in case.

> And chat history, if it's relevant.

Losing your chat history might be a blessing in disguise.

I'm stuck between trying again with a new app after a failed merge, or letting it go. It is oddly liberating but I am a sentimental hoarder by nature so I feel like I lost something special.

Though the history might actually be useful for some people in business or divorce proceedings and that sort of thing.

I think Telegram is trying to get people to migrate their chat histories now.

Agree, active whatsapp users have so many groups with huge number of members. whatsapp switching cost is high because couple of group members refuse to switch, so group remains in whatsapp. Without group chats migrating to new platform, it remains a ghost town.

This is why interoperability is so important: it lets you move from one platform to another gradually rather than all at once. I've done this myself; my friend group was on XMPP for a while, then we moved to Matrix, but there was never a point when we all switched at once. It was a gradual process, with us bridging our group chats between the two, and slowly people started moving over (and in fact some of us still use both). I have never had a transition that successful between proprietary chat platforms.

To quote a recently-posted piece by Cory Doctorow:

> Interoperability lowers “switching costs” – the cost of leaving behind whatever you’re using now in favor of something you think will suit you better. When my grandparents emigrated to Canada from the Soviet Union on a displaced persons ship, they incurred a high switching cost: for more than a decade, they had no contact with their family in Leningrad except through unreliable, slow word-of-mouth with the rare person who got a visa to travel there.

> Contrast this with my move from the UK to Los Angeles in 2015: we are in routine contact with my in-laws in London and Wales, as well as my family in Toronto. My laptop and books came with me, as did our other personal effects. We left most of our appliances behind because they ran on a different voltage, but there were a few things we loved that we brought with and either changed the plugs on or connected to our house’s electrical outlets via transformer or adapters.


People forget that WhatsApp used to have a subscription that cost $1 per year. With 1 billion users that's plenty enough money to pay for their infrastructure.

Imagine if they'd kept that business model rather than being bought out by FB and sucked into their data harvesting swamp.

I've always thought that was a marketing trick. After all, how could all the bandwidth and development time and resources I was using only cost $1/yr?

However, now that I know how lean the team that built WhatsApp was, the math does check out, and it's amazing that all it costs to keep the bullshit at bay is $1/yr.

Yes, but many of the people who use the service are in developing countries where free is always considered better. If they had to charge those people WhatsApp never would have taken off in those locales like it has.

How much money can you expect to make from users that can't afford $1/year? I can't imagine that you get a lot from ads in that target population.

It isn't about "not being able to afford". Why pay $1 when a free alternative is available?

This. I live in Austria where the average income is high among the developed world and even here, through a poll on reddit, most people said they are not willing to pay for any private/secure messaging platforms on the arguments that "why pay for something I can get for free?" and "I have nothing important in my communications worth datamining" or "I already have a Facebook account so they already have all my private info, what's the point of privacy at this point?".

So even people with good incomes are super stingy when it comes to paying even a couple of bucks for things that they are used to being free and don't care much for online privacy as long as their basic needs are being met.

IMHO, until a massive hack/leak hits one of these free services, people can't be bothered to care.

> in developing countries where free is always considered better

Free is considered better by everyone everywhere.

Which makes me think back to the anti-open-source propaganda of the 90s, that hippie commies will ruin software by giving everything away for free. While this was ridiculed back in the day, I think we can see now that there was quite a big nugget of truth in it. In the past decades, we've discovered the perfect, competition-destroying, ubermodel of software distribution: free, subsidized by advertising. This model is a source of unending pathologies (including, but not limited to, the ones described in the article), and it cannot be reasonably competed with.

I responded to a similar perspective: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25985086

TLDR: the best platforms don't need to scale (in the traditional sense), and only need a revenue stream to pay for software development. Simplicity of the software can reduce development effort and therefore the budget.

Wow, never thought of an app's predatory behaviour akin to 'domestication' - but it is true, i find it incredibly hard to leave.

the other interesting point the author makes is that the domestication can be inadvertently done by the app.

So, what is a well meaning app creator to do? Is'nt that just a symptom of success? He mentions what Signal could have done ( move towards decentralization) but not clear what Mozilla could have done?

Email is an open protocol and we are still locked into Gmail and others for a whopping 50% of the market. The fact that you can switch away easily (exporting your inbox) is not enough. Few people actually have their own servers + clients as to be able to claim they are fully independent. It's more of a perceived freedom of choice than reality. For most services just having a 3rd party server, free or paid, is enough for your privacy to be compromised.

All apps and internet services will lock you in to some degree. Every app or service is game for targeted ads and selling data for bucks at some point in their revenue lifecycle. It won't make a dent in the model to have FOSS as a substitute. When behind FOSS there's a business, there's money to be made, salaries to pay and shares to be exchanged for growth and profit.

Just to finish my thought here... The problem deep down is that there is a market for your personal data. If you destroy that market (ie stiffer regulation) most problems with lock-in go away. Lock-in in itself can also be dealt with, ie Brussels brand new DSA and DSM could potentially address these issues.


The problem with WhatsApp is not that users are locked in. You can install as many chat apps as you want. WhatsApp has no exclusivity over its users.

The problem with WhatsApp is that it only has one alternative. In terms of chat apps that use the signal protocol there's two: WhatsApp and Signal. And Signal is not quite as good as WhatsApp. It's certainly much improved but it's not there yet.

The vast majority of users don't care about the underlying encryption. That's a problem, in a sense, but the core problem here is the network effect. That it's the natural behaviour of people doesn't make it not a problem.

It makes a difference that there is not an obvious comparable alternative.

The network effect works both ways: if key people in my network are convinced to switch, other people will follow.

When I think of networks of friends and family I don't think that's the case. You'll need something approaching 50%+1.

There are a few alternatives, actually. There is also Element (based on Matrix), and XMPP which use encryption based on the Signal Protocol. Both are mentioned in the article.

And yes: users are locked in, because your whole social network is expected to be on WhatsApp. 1) you need to convince others to find you on alternatives (every single person even people you just met, you have to explain what&why; also: workplace, clubs, etc. or leave them). You certainly aren't going to convince everyone 2) you will miss out on a lot: people are being invited into groups, but they can't invite you anymore to just join; people create groups on the messenger they use most often, because it is more convenient for them. In summary, if you have a active social life and grow/grew up with it you will have a lot of friction if you really want to get rid of it. That is what I would call locked in.

By the way, this whole problem of network-effect based lock-in was already solved for telephony in the old days. Why do we have to solve it again?

Because regulation is bad and therefore we have been left at the mercy of the invisible hand of the free market.

Even this recent spate of "deplatforming" events can't seem to sway (a certain subset of) the tech community towards the idea that some amount of regulation can be a good thing.

You mean regulation as in net neutrality?

I can't switch from Whatsapp because my close relatives are on Whatsapp. I can't persuade them to switch because they are quite elderly and their close friends are on Whatsapp. Moreover, the video chat, and the ability to send documents directly from Whatsapp are the reasons why many working professionals keep using Whatsapp. Signal is not there yet in polish, unfortunately.

To me, it's not a Whatsapp versus Signal debate. It is about communication tools being consolidated into behemoth social media platforms. I don't think Signal is immune to that.

We probably need an Ida Tarbell for the information age.

We should decide which information about us we give, and which we don’t. No matter the app we use, noone should collect information about the app usage without user permission. This should be a law right now, but the cookies were more relevant, I pressume.

app usage data is collected all the time, in form of server logs, and you shouldn't expect this to change. We should be able to opt into using our data for marketing purposes, getting various benefits in return, but that should be opt in , not opt out. Still , this begs a question, what could be attributed as marketing purpose

They don’t even need server logs. You could opt being logged for support matters if you have problems. To log every user is not needed. It should be illegal. If you need to log usage to improve or debug the app you could opt in users like beta testers. Final users shouldn’t be logged at all. Also you could make no-logging a paid feature

This is a bit overwrought. New chat apps rise and fall all the time. The barrier to switching isn't that high.

I find it interesting that the author (and many others that argue in favor of federated systems) refers to Signal's (The Ecosystem is Moving)[1] post where Moxie outlines their reasons for not federating, but without acknowledging any of those reasons.

Would Signal have been able to roll out sealed sender / private groups / many of their other security features in a federated system, without leading to a fragmented experience? While most people would probably be able to download an XMPP client and sign up for an account, you'd lose them once you start explaining that they can't send encrypted messages to their friend on another server because that server doesn't support the necessary XEPs.

The importance of usable security seems to be ignored here, as is often the case in technical circles.

[1]: https://signal.org/blog/the-ecosystem-is-moving/

> Free calls helped it grow to become the de-facto communication platform in many other countries.

Other countries? Other from what? The non-other country isn't defined in the paragraph leading to this sentence.

Like many people I detest Facebook and don't defend it. But this is sloppy writing and sloppy thinking.

Americentrism I'm sure.

[Am author] Agreed that this section was insensitive and Americentric. I've since re-worded and expanded that bit.

Diff: https://git.sr.ht/~seirdy/seirdy.one/commit/51c84cebf17b5091...

“WhatsApp’s existing users were held captive by the fact that leaving WhatsApp meant losing the ability to communicate with WhatsApp users.”

I'm confused. I thought everyone was identified by their phone number, which can be used to receive texts from anyone.

Had SMS supported group text, Whatsapp would have never existed in the 1st world (and had SMS been free in Asia, Whatsapp would have never existed at all).

When WhatsApp first came out, lots of people (in the West) paid punishingly high costs for sending an SMS at all.

Being able to communicate via [free wifi/a much smaller data cost] was a big selling point.

Yes, I suspect it's a function of average-age-on-HN, but certainly remember when teens would have a phone plan based on how many "free" texts were included.

People in some countries have become quite unaccustomed to sending SMS, a legacy of expensive per-message costs (which is why WhatsApp originally took off). So, you can text them, but they might not answer you back unless they can do it through Whatsapp.

SMS is a poor replacement tbh. It still costs money in some places, doesn't support rich text/emoji, multimedia support is extremely dodgy, and it is completely without security or privacy.

There's this undercurrent in the FOSS community of people deriving a sense of superiority from using such software. This article is an excellent example with its use of the idea of domestication and other such terms meant to distance the author from the hapless masses.

For most people, the calculus is simple: they want to live their lives and have little interest in the tools themselves. The author mentioned the emotional drain they felt each time they had to reiterate their stance on privacy to people, but failed to consider the validity of the mirror image sentiment there, that is to say the frustrated puzzlement of friends and acquaintances just wanting to interact without jumping through hoops and bothering with things that they do not intrinsically care about. This is the same theory of mind issue that causes many open source programs to be plagued with poor UIs. The enjoyment of feelings of superiority prevents the very empathy and understanding that would not only diminish it but could also ironically probably lead to better privacy-focused services that more people would adopt.

That's not to say that I don't think online privacy is tremendously important, just that there are multiple dimensions to it. It collectively matters, but for any random individual to be concerned is often the result of vanity. In reality, there are too many people jostling for attention for any one person to have a statistically likely chance of being scrutinized, even if it does happen regularly given the size of the world. Even social norms themselves are changing to make a wider range of lifestyles acceptable, further shrinking the problem from the individual's perspective. Prominent individuals are now doing things that would be frowned upon a decade ago, and doing well. In the end, perhaps the prospect of being revealed as unimportant after all can be much more terrifying than the familiar and more manageable fear of tech surveillance.

Note that I am not making the tired "but I have nothing to hide!" argument but simply stating that attitudes to privacy can't simply be divided between "intelligent and perceptive software persons" and "silly, animal-like masses". Ressentiment and casting the rest of society as inferior is a classic trap that only leaves misery in its wake.

[Am author] I took care not to ever describe the characteristics of users when describing domestication; "user domestication" refers to treatment of users, not characteristics of users themselves. Domestication is an act or process before it is a characteristic.

Part of the point of the article was to argue that users shouldn't be treated as livestock by companies; they should be served by vendors rather than be in service of vendors. I wanted people to think it's bad to treat normal users as lesser beings to be exploited.

In other words: you're right. My article agrees with you.

If you think the message wasn't communicated clearly enough, I'm open to suggestions on how I could clarify this.

This blog post is really a great piece in my opinion, because it puts a name (domestication) to a feeling I commonly had for some tools and service but that was hard to formalize.

The example with Signal is great: I tried to explain to people that yes, it is way better to use it instead of whatsapp, but still suboptimal compared to other solutions despite it to maybe be the safest.

For example, I put a lot of value to not depend on a device like a specific phone and be able to easily do backup everything in a processable format!

Someone said the problem of WhatsApp is network effects. Network effects are fine.

Email benefits from network effects. The difference is that email is designed to be decentralized and from the beginning had many clients with open protocols. IRC similar. And of course, the web browser itself. DNS.

Back when these were invented, people had many different operating systems and architectures, so the protocol was more important than the client/server. Today, we have about three platforms: web, iOS and Android, meaning you can reach millions of users with software rapidly, rather than the slow way of pushing a protocol. There’s less incentive to have decentralization and there’s money to be made. Protocols require cooperation and therefore move slower. SMS and IRC and email don’t feel modern because they move at glacial pace of cooperation.

I think therefore it’s harder today to push a decentralized, more free protocol than it was when we had more OS/arch diversity. When in a quasi-mono-culture, protocols take a back seat. People don’t ask about it or know what they are. The ratios are flipped: we have basically three OSes and a very large diversity of app/services all incompatible and each locking you in.

[Am author] From the article:

> To prevent a network effect from turning into vendor lock-in, software that naturally encourages a network effect needs to be part of an open platform. In the case of communication/messaging software, it should be possible to make alternative clients and servers that are compatible with each other to prevent completion of user domestication’s first two steps.

You are absolutely correct about network effects; a network effect only leads to vendor lock-in when it's combined with a closed platform. Vendor lock-in then leaves users vulnerable to possible domestication.

I've been thinking about implementation diversity lately, and will likely write a follow-up addressing the possibility of an open platform becoming closed. Implementation diversity is one means to keeping open platforms from closing up.

Original inspiration for this idea came from another comment I responded to a few mins ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25985365

The article misses some of hte core problems with WhatsApp.

- It treats Phone and Contacts a personal identity and world. - You don't need any permission from your contacts to add them to a group. - You can forward any message and it cannot be verified for the source.

All these try to given an effect that user is in control of many things, while ignoring socially learned concepts of personal space, non-intrusive behavior and sharing of truth.

> WhatsApp rose by trapping previously-free beings in their corral and changing their habits to create dependence on masters.

wtf? WhatsApp is one of a long line of chat systems that will come and go. It must be the 20th chat system I've used in the last 30 years. There will be another 20.

Get over yourself, author.

I updated the article to address this concern, and described my thought process in another comment: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25986136

Something this doesn't seem to mention is the organizational size of the software supplier, which I think is an important factor.

If a company provides a free and open source software product and they are composed of a small number of employees, it can be easier for the community to trust, observe and hold that entity accountable for their changes and roadmap.

There's a balance to strike, of course; extremely small teams may be more limited in what they can achieve.

But I think that can be overcome by identifying the bottlenecks and spinning off smaller free and open source software enterprises to fill the gaps, fostering a positive feedback loop. To a certain extent this mirrors the Unix philosophy regarding command-line tools.

Hadn't heard the term "User Domestication" before but I love it. Great description.

It was just a random phrase that my hands typed in IRC with minimal direction from my brain; I sarcastically said "yes, sending plaintext over the Internet was literally impossible before the widespread domestication of users". I honestly have no idea how the hell I came up with that.

(yes, I understand that messaging apps are more than sending text over the Internet; it was a bad joke).

I read what I wrote and thought that it was a clever phrase. One day and like 2500 words later, here we are :).

"car salesman" has got be the understatement of the century, lol

I'm extremely weary of using the term 'domestication'.

In social sciences and evolutionary biology, 'domestication' has a specific meaning which has changed over time.

Past definitions of domestication put emphasis on the who was the lead partner in the relationship. Modern insights, however, have shifted that definition towards recognizing domestication as a mutual relationship in which both partners gain benefits.

Moreover, domestication is specifically defined as a mutual relationship with one organism exerting influence over the care and reproduction of another organism.

The dynamic described by the author isn't a mutual relationship, as demonstrated in the blogpost, nor a relationship having - obviously - "care" or "reproduction" are at its core.

Morever, this sounds a lot like hyperbole:

> WhatsApp rose by trapping previously-free beings in their corral and changing their habits to create dependence on masters. Over time, this made it difficult or impossible to return to their previous lifestyle.

Okay, so this is where I'm going to play advocate of the devil.

What does the author mean with "previously-free" exactly? Are users being actively corralled like cattle into an enclosure? Or is that figure of speech to drive a point home about the importance of FOSS in the second part of the article?

> Free software is a necessary but sometimes insufficient requirement to build domestication immunity.

There is no such thing as "domestication immunity". That doesn't exist.

Species evolve over multiple generations towards a mutually beneficial relationship, usually driven by environmental circumstances e.g. dogs and cats are massively "successful" species for the simple sake that their domestication ensured their survival across generations, whereas wild variants are less "successful" (e.g. bobcats or lynxes) and have become endangered because they didn't adapt to a changing environment over tens of thousands of years.

Domestication is an emerging evolutionary trait. It's not something any species is "immune" against.

Language matters. Whenever biological or evolutionary terms are used to explain market dynamics, that raises a few red flags with me.

Of course, there's a problem. WhatsApp is part of a larger industrial complex which specifically aims to wholesale capture markets, root out competition and accumulate wealth on an unprecedented scale.

The best comparison you can make between large tech companies and the past would be the Dutch East Indian Company which was a proto-conglomerate, a megacorporation and example of an early-modern corporate model of a vertically integrated global supply chain. [1]

The same criticisms espoused in the blogpost - restrictions of freedom, alleged violence - were made against the VOC as well: monopolisation, exploitation, colonisation, violence and slavery. [2]

None of this is new from a historic perspective. It's just the same dynamics emerging again, but in a digital space which spills over and fundamentally affects the lives of countless of individuals in ways that couldn't be foreseen.

Rather then looking at the larger picture of how these large corporations operate and their uncanny semblance with past predecessors which yield valuable historic lessons, the author double downs on the importance of "free software" as a measure against these practices.

I'm weary of such principled takes on "free software" as well.

> With user domestication, providing useful software to users is a means to the end of exploiting them. The alternative is simple: make serving users the end in and of itself.

It sounds nice in theory, but it's really a veiled reformulation of Kant's Categorical Imperative. [3] Many philosphers - Schoppenhauer and Kierkegaard - have shown that such categorical and principled takes can, paradoxically, lose their value as well.

Why would "make serving users the end in and of itself" be a thing? What does this even mean? Why would I want to serve users for the sake of serving users? Isn't that a circular argument that carries absolutely no value in itself?

The concept of freedom only gains importance when you tie it to the human condition, to human goals, incentives and motives. To the things that makes humans human. Freedom and free software helps empower people to act on their own dreams, their own path in life,... Whether it's writing a book, starting a small business, making art, starting a family, choosing where to live,... without some anonymous corporation comprising those wishes for the sake of profit.

As soon as you start to think about this in concrete terms, it should become clear that slapping free software licenses on codebases alone isn't going to save the world either. And it's extremely important to recognize that as well.

Whether you like it or not, how humanity will have to confront big tech corporations and their global impact has surpassed the notions of the importance of IRC, Matrix or XMPP over WhatsApp quite a long time ago.

For sure, it's important to promote the existence of alternatives and raise awareness. Absolutely. But the entire 'user domestication' perspective takes it one notch too far of the mark.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_East_India_Company [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_East_India_Company#Colon... [3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categorical_imperative

Hahah, I don't know what else to say about an app like Watsapp. Especially considering the fact that at the moment it is owned by Facebook. I believe the less popular ones are the safest applications. For example, Utopia p2p is a decentralized application that has never been seen in cybersecurity scandals.

Beautifully written. Domestication is apt-its userbase has largely been kept blissfully ignorant and still a huge chunk of its users have no problem using it with the term changes.

I guess the big deal is that if your friends who aren't accustomed to authoritarian style governments no longer wants to talk to you because you are on Whatsapp then it will force those people to stay on it at the risk of looking stupid and ignorant.

I rather not talk to friends or people who refuse to stop and look at whats happening. So many of them say "I have nothing to hide so whats wrong with this?". They are fully domesticated.

The acquisition never should have been allowed. Everybody must reject Zuckerberg's attempts to own the world

I don't know why this focused on WhatsApp when this is the fundamental problem of free markets - somebody is going to win, and then they're not going to want to give up their top spot, using all sorts of barely-legal tactics to accomplish that goal.

Notice I said barely-legal - there lies the answer - the legal system. You're not going to fix dominant players abusing their power with anything but laws and culture that make it untenable to treat people like shit.

Now comes the kicker - who is going to make sure the law-makers and law-enforcers don't abuse their power? Where's your 'free software' solution to that dilemma?

The point about simplicity is important and often overlooked.

> Complex software that can’t be developed by a different group of people creates dependence, step one of user domestication. That alone is enough to open the door to problematic developments.

This was one of the goals of Urbit[1]. Reduce complexity to increase freedom.

It’s true that Urbit uses esoteric naming for Hoon, but there are many contributors at this point and from what I understand, it is possible for one person to maintain the whole thing. Assuming that’s true, it’s an amazing accomplishment in simplification of software.

[1]: https://urbit.org/blog/precepts-discussion/

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