It starts off simply — as the seduction of free messaging. It's almost always recommended by an enthusiastic convert, and there seems absolutely no reason why it shouldn't be tried. And before long, WhatsApp has claimed another devotee. If that documents your story and love affair with WhatsApp, you're in good company. Statistics show that there are upwards of 700 million active monthly users on WhatsApp and 1 million new users are added on every day.
Of course, these numbers are probably out of date already. But the truth they reveal is unmistakable. A higher percentage of the world population is under the thrall of WhatsApp today than was hit by the Black Death, or the Spanish Flu or perished in World War I or World War II. Combined.
The fact that it's free and can be used by anyone anywhere in the world with access to a smartphone, accounts for its initial adoption. But, the reasons it becomes an addiction, quickly overtaking and swamping text messaging are many. The ease with which even people who count themselves as technology cretins can send photographs, audio and video files creates its own odd compulsion to do so.
The dependence is stoked since WhatsApp allows one to be a part of a number of closed groups in which different parts of one's life can be kept separate. So Bablu Bhaiya from Benares is completely unaware of the existence of a certain slinky microscopic green dress while it is simultaneously triumphantly showcased to another audience — this tidy apartheid feeds the craving. In addition, the luxury of being able to mute notifications from groups, or to leave a group and the ability to block a user (and never ever be subject to offers to buy luxury villas in Sonepat) — these are other reasons why it seems no one can get enough.
The language of addiction that WhatsApp has spawned — it is variously referred to as a compulsion, a craving, a fix — doesn't seem to be misplaced. So no matter what time or in what circumstances a WhatsApp notification arrives, checking it is seen, almost universally, as a minor medical imperative. It is feverishly checked before going into "dead" zones like aircraft or before sleeping at night and it is feverishly checked on landing or right after waking up. Google "WhatsApp addiction" and a staggering 11.5 million results pop up.
There are other factors feeding the stickiness too. WhatsApp has notifications for messages sent and received — a single grey tick means the message has been sent, two grey ticks means it has been received, and two blue ticks means it has been read. Other features on WhatsApp allow a user to see whether the person one is talking to is typing, online or offline and, in the latter case, when this person was last seen online.
This transparency seems to stoke greater engagement and also greater anxiety than the ambiguity of transit in the sending, receiving and reading of a text message. What this also means is that it's ludicrously easy to track not just the journey of your own messages to people, but those people themselves based on their WhatsApp activity.
So, whether its parents checking to see how long their kids have been chatting while ostensibly sleeping or studying, or friends and partners keeping tabs on one another, or colleagues whose gimlet gaze one can no longer escape — it's no exaggeration to say that everyone who's on WhatsApp has stalked or has been stalked by someone.
WhatsApp "Stalker Detectors" are now a burgeoning industry with multiple apps available for download for those squeamish souls who may not be exactly comfortable being monitored by practically anyone in their phone book. There are even a few academic papers available which make for amusing though slightly creepy reading — "Whatsapp Monitoring for Fun and Stalking" is a typical title of one such scholarly examination of this trend.
If you think this is what the crazies do with their spare time, and this level of addiction has no resonance with you, consider this: the next time you find yourself wondering why someone who is online and in fact typing has not acknowledged your message, or you feel the urge to check when your friend or child was last online, or you find your camera roll on your phone is full of images downloaded and saved automatically from WhatsApp — just remember this is what the pandemic looks like from the inside.
When Vatsala Mamgain is not on her smartphone, she is a foodie, cook, runner, shopper, reader, and talker. She's also unemployed.