WhatsApp and the double edged sword of double ticks

Note: This article was originally published on March 7, 2014.

It was during a British High Commission dinner event that I was invited to that I heard the first whatsapp bashing. This was around a year back. And the sentiment was quite strong as well. “I hate whatsapp” was one of the remarks of one of the ladies of the British High Commission team. It was promptly echoed by one of her colleagues standing by her side as well.

Well, of course I was puzzled. It was such a beautiful app. How could they not like it? I loved the app and here I am running into absolute haters of the app. I didn’t get it.

I had to ask and I did politely enquire the reason for those “I hate Whatsapp” statements with the two lovely ladies. And they only had one issue (one major issue btw) — it was enabling a version of online stalking!

The culprit were the combined effect of two aspects: the double tick to indicate that the message has been received by the recipient and the line which reads “last seen at time on”. Apparently, people would ping them with messages that read “I saw that you were online last night at 2am. Why didn’t you respond to my message that was sent early last night?”. Worse still “What were you upto at 2 in the night? ;)”. Well, there is a fine line between flirting and perversion and going by the tone of response from the ladies, this casual enquiry message clearly did not belong to the former category.

Now that I had heard about their side of the story, it all made sense now. Why they hated whatsapp and why they preferred BBM over whatspp. (The latest BBM version had the equivalent implementation of the double tick but the user had the power to add or not add someone to his or her chat network)

To weigh in both sides of the story, yes, there is merit to whatsapps implementation as against that of BBM. In BBM, there is better control of who gets into my chat list but there is this additional work on my part to add each and every person that I want on chat explicitly (BBM messenger required a BBM pin to add someone and the person has to manually accept that request to be able to chat). On Whatsapp, you have the number of a person, you have them in their chat list. It was super convenient and this implementation had a lot of merits. While you can argue that you had the option to block someone, that’s an option we normally resort to in extreme situations (and usually not the case when someone asks you why didn’t you respond or what you were upto)

I now completely get it. Several months down the line when I decided to uninstall whatsapp, this double tick was one of the major reasons why I decided to go ahead with the uninstall decision. Not quite because of the stalking issue but owing to the fact that it became difficult to manage expectations. When people sent you a message on whatsapp and they see a double tick, they expect a response from you. And the built in expectation of a whatsapp message is in the order of minutes as against a day or two when it comes to email. That was problem number 1. And from time to time, I also encountered the situation where people asked me the question that irked the British High Commission ladies so much “I saw that you were online at time. Why didn’t you respond to my message?”

The next problem can be attributed to the phenomenon of social niceties. The combined effect of messages that read “Hi” “Good morning/night/evening/afternoon” “Did you have food” “Happy Diwali/friendship day” from a large number of people that had access to my phone number (and therefore to my whatsapp chat list) was a challenge. It was a tricky territory for me for if I don’t respond, the person might be offended and if I do, I’m actually encouraging that behavior and more importantly the sender might take it as a cue for engaging in a conversation right away. (Whatsapp does not provide API access too, otherwise I could have attempted to get one of those startup guys to write a chat bot to automate these social nicety responses on my behalf )

I resorted to a practice of switching off my data and switching it on only at predefined intervals in an attempt to manage this double tick thing and the expectation management challenge that resulted from that. Eventually, I decided that it would just be easier for me to delete the app for the time being. I also realized that most people don’t prefer texts much anymore and that it also costs them to send an SMS while making this move to a text only mode. Plus, the expectation of getting a response for a text is not as real time as is the case with a whatsapp message. I was counting on all these factors to reduce the inflow of messages to my phone when I made the switch to a no whatsapp mobile experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I did like whatsapp and I still do. The problem was the whatsapp did not give me a choice with respect to this aspect of my social life. It did not give me a choice like Orkut did. In Orkut, if you don’t wish to see who viewed your profile, you also wont get to see the list of people who viewed your profile. Similarly, had whatsapp provided me options with respect to double tick and last seen, I would have been a delighted customer and would have still been on whatsapp enjoying all the positive experiences that the app provided me with.

Since then, I was on the hunt to find a hack that eliminates the double tick issue from my phone. There is this bright engineering student that helps me with all my hacks. He did some research and found that it should be possible. Apparently, all data usage from the phone (or any device for that matter) to the internet happens through ports and you can manually restrict access to certain ports for certain apps. Our dear engineering prodigy did some research and told me that the double tick removal from my whatsapp should be possible (since whatsapp was using some two different servers and therefore two different ports for sending and receiving or something like that). I was hoping that he will find out a hack soon so that it will be a welcome relief for me, those two ladies and all the others who faced similar issues.

While all this was happening, thankfully, another friend of mine, who was well aware of this whatsapp situation of mine, forwarded an article (Link to the article) to me a few days back. Apparently, whatsapp is rolling out an update themselves that will allow you to have control over the double tick and last seen. Its not available in the Google App Store yet as per the article, so you might need to manually install it by downloading the apk file from the whatsapp website. I’m just super glad that whatsapp themselves decided to roll out this feature. My faith in the company and their focus on providing the best experience for their customers has been restored.

All those on Android, this should be a really useful thing for you. As for me, my return to whatsapp is going to be a bit more delayed. I have a BB10 (Blackberry) phone. So I need to figure out a hack to get this Android APK / app to run on my Blackberry (its possible and that’s how I’m using the Wunderlist app on my phone: Its their Android app) or wait until whatsapp comes out with the BB10 version of this update. Looking forward to be back on Whatsapp soon! Until then, its good old SMS for me