While services like WhatsApp and Messenger share the conversational elements above that make Slack a great social platform, these messaging apps really shine when it comes to utility. Sure, they foster community amidst your friend group, provide entertainment with Bitmojis and inside jokes galore, and offer a certain level of privacy and control with the limited size of a community (and the end-to-end encryption in the case of WhatsApp). Yet their primary purpose is to communicate information quickly and effectively. This is utility at its finest.
In fact, the utility of these messaging apps is perhaps so strong that it actually limits the ability of status to be a dominant pillar. There are few ways within WhatsApp to acquire more social capital than the others in your group. You may be the wittiest or share the most helpful information, but there is no mechanism to earn a badge or likes for such behavior. And while not ephemeral in the same concept as a snap or a story, your messages often go by so quickly such that the funny gif you sent this morning is long forgotten by lunch time. Thus, there is no manner in which to store an indicator of status within the app. Status is suppressed by the nature of the utility.
As a result, WhatsApp (or any pure messaging tool for that matter) is perhaps the most authentic of social apps. It is real time and the one most closely tied to your real person and life. In fact, the idea of a “persona,” which is the foundation of many social platforms, doesn’t really exist within WhatsApp. The person you present on WhatsApp is the same person you are in real life. You message largely the same way that you speak. Compare that to someone’s Instagram feed or TikTok account, which is littered with expertly crafted styles and images. Oftentimes these styles even vary significantly across platform for the same person – a result of the fact that the crowds they are gathering status from differ on each platform and reward different styles or behaviors.
So what does this tell us about the merit of utility when it comes to social apps? First and foremost it is that apps with strong utility from the outset are less likely to hit the status media tipping point early in their lifecycle. However, this does not mean that apps that index high on utility are immune from this tipping point. Just look at the steps WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have taken to add a stories feature to their platforms – each is now at over 500 million daily active users (DAUs.) Stories have added a new layer of social that prizes entertainment and status through the crafting of personas. The question now is when these platforms will tip to status media. We will likely hit a point where the messaging groups become too large, or a mechanism to track status (views, likes, hearts) becomes so strong, or the type of content that is “valued” becomes too prescribed, that the scales ultimately tip. And at that point, WhatsApp will tip into the land of status media, opening up opportunity for the next wave of social messaging players.
This is one of a series of excerpts from my chapter in Finding Genius: Venture Capital and the Future it Is Betting On. You can check out the entire excerpt series here. The book is available for purchase on Amazon.