An absurdly continual predicament: I unlock my phone to check a few messages from a close friend from Mexico or a business contact, both of whom I only communicate with through Whatsapp. My friends peer over my shoulder, and what awaits me is a discussion I’ve never been able to evade.
“What’s that app?” says one of them.
“Is that Whatsapp?” another followed. “Why are you using that?”
The curiosity around my messaging habits is nothing I haven’t heard before, so I ring off the usual spiel: you only need Wi-Fi, it has a great audio messaging feature, it has stickers. They tease that I just want to feel worldly, that all of those features are available on iMessage, and that I especially have no reason to be communicating with my partner, who is from Indiana, through a channel such as Whatsapp. I’m left dumbfounded, again, but my use continues.
In the United States, Whatsapp has always fallen short of sensation. Even as other communication apps such as Zoom and Google Meets skyrocketed in the past year, the curiosity never bled into Whatsapp. The app boasts approximately 1.5 billion users worldwide, but the U.S.’ contribution has been negligible: in 2018, only 12.1% of mobile users in the U.S. used the app.
Instead, countries like India and Brazil occupy the greatest share of usership. I was quickly made aware of the latter country’s attachment to the app following my decision to undertake the Portuguese language in 2018. All of my newfound internet penpals gave me their Whatsapp first instead of their Facebook account, so I followed suit. When you’re taking your first digital steps into another hemisphere, there’s no other option. Just as you can’t get by in Miami without speaking Spanish, you can’t get by in the Brazilian world without having a Whatsapp (Brazilianized as Zap-ee) account.
Whatsapp in Brazil has brushed U.S. news multiple times: the three times Brazilian judges have ordered nationwide shutdowns to collect data for investigations, bringing Brazilian life to a halt, or the app’s ties to the divulgation of misinformation in Brazil’s 2018 election, adding confusion to an already charged political battle. Aside from these past events, we’ve never heard much about why Brazilians are so attached to the app, nor how day-to-day use builds its potential and influence in culture, politics and media. My last three years of Whatsapp use have facilitated my life in myriad ways, but the reasons I use it look meager next to Brazil’s enterprising ability to weave it into life at every level. It’s one the most bizarrely impressive technological phenomena I’ve ever seen.
The app’s unimpressive strides in Uncle Sam’s domain may seem like another case of US-American ‘just-because’ idiosyncrasy– the same idiosyncrasy found in the country’s use of yards, miles, and gallons, for example– but the reasons, both obvious and latent, nod to the cultural and economic disparities between the U.S. and the rest of the world, but especially so with Brazil.
Ironically, the app wasn’t founded with them in mind, but rather the United States: before 2016, the company charged users outside the U.S. an annual $0.99 subscription fee after their first year. After six years of overwhelming response from non-US Whatsappers, the company acknowledged in a blog post that the subscription model inconvenienced their most important markets, and shifted to a free model.
“From a new dad in Indonesia sharing photos with his family, to a student in Spain checking in with her friends back home, to a doctor in Brazil keeping in touch with her patients, people rely on WhatsApp to be fast, simple and reliable,” the post dictates. “As we’ve grown, we’ve found that [the subscription] approach hasn’t worked well. Many WhatsApp users don’t have a debit or credit card number and they worried they’d lose access to their friends and family after their first year.”
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. went unmentioned at the beginning (unlike Brazil), and the “many Whatsapp users” without debit cards are likely encompassed mostly by users outside the U.S. A subscription model makes sense in a nearly cashless society with high prioritization of financial independence, but such a model couldn’t have survived much longer elsewhere.
I took to Twitter to ask my friends and followers around the world about their countries’ use of the app. From Amanda Silva Simões, a 20-year-old undergraduate student from São Paulo, I learned more about Brazil’s socioeconomic gaps, and that Whatsapp primarily owes its success in Brazil (and shortcoming in the U.S.) to one simple thing, or its lack thereof: iPhones.
“I don’t have an iPhone, it’s not so widespread here. Only the middle and upper classes can have them, so iMessage is not so common here,” she told me. “Whatsapp makes messaging available to everyone.”
Approximately half of smartphone users in the United States opt for iPhones, leading users to primarily communicate through iMessage, the instant messaging application that comes pre-installed with the device. Its convenience and all-in-one feel play perfectly into the U.S.’ cultural obsession with flow, and this is how Apple, in the last decade, has eternalized its spot in the North American way of life. With regard to messaging, this convenience combined with the fact that the average US-American doesn’t have much contact with people outside of the country has discarded the need for an extraneous messaging app.
Meanwhile, Apple’s almost 47% market share in the U.S. drops to just 14% in Brazil. The principal cause is the fact that iPhones are foreign imports subject to taxation that often amounts to a higher cost than the good itself. Another factor is the ever-fluctuating Brazilian real: it’s had a terrible year because of COVID-19 tensions. When it dipped to a 4.75BRL-to-USD valuation last March, reports surged of Paraguayans crossing the Paraguayan-Brazilian border en masse to purchase shoes, appliances and, of course, electronics. If such goods in Brazil are generally more accessible to the rich and the occasional foreigner than the average citizen, there’s no wondering why Brazilians from north to south reach for Android (and by extension Whatsapp) instead.
Simões further recalled that in 2019, she interviewed with two companies for internships: Deutsche Welle, a German media company, and Bloomberg, the New York City-based financial L.P. While DW carried out all communication through Whatsapp per usual, Bloomberg reached out to her exclusively through email. Despite Germany and Brazil’s distance both cultural and geographical, Whatsapp has bridged them with similar communication protocols that the U.S. has barely thought to explore: messaging as part of the professional sector. We’ve circulated work meme after work meme about pointless email announcements and fatigue after a slew of emails written in formal cyber-prose, and on TikTok, countless women have gone viral with relatable stories about asserting themselves more in emails and adopting the same emailing style as male colleagues. Looking past the humorous delivery, it’s objectively sad seeing how draining communication can be when it should arguably be the easiest step. The earlier example between Germany and Brazil proves that it’s not just hemispheral, it’s not east versus west– it’s a global cyber-etiquette phenomenon, and the United States missed the memo long ago.
It needs mentioning that in Brazil, there’s a clear trickling-down of Whatsapp into almost every sphere of daily life. Aside from the aforementioned professional use, it’s common in academic life, with students regularly messaging professors for quick access; business life, where food can be ordered through a simple text; building group chats (Simões says), where tenants sell unwanted furniture and discuss maintenance. Personal use is a given, but Brazil’s integration of Whatsapp into so many societal levels is simply resourceful and ingenious.
Despite such practicality, the true measure of Whatsapp’s effectiveness in Brazil is its delivery on the most basic promise of any messaging app: making people feel close to one another. It might be a generalization, but the way I see Brazilians communicate with each other through the app is far more intimate than anything I’ve witnessed in the U.S. The app’s features, such as audio messages and stickers, give way to the constant micro-expressions of intimacy that Brazilians would otherwise display to each other in person. It’s important to emphasize that these features are completely available in U.S.-leading apps like Facebook Messenger and iMessage, but the cultural conduct to actually reach for them is almost nonexistent.
Instead of a series of paragraphs, which I would expect in the U.S., I was pleasantly surprised to see 3-minute audio messages that emulate a true conversation. This in particular is something common to people all over Latin America– I’ve received audios ranging from 30 seconds to 15 minutes from friends and contacts from Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. As a writer and a YouTuber, less screen time is a heaven-sent gift, so closing my eyes and listening to whatever news or stories they have to tell me is a refuge. It’s de-pixelated and truer to the personal nature of human communication, and in a world where technology is constantly scrutinized as a threat to that humanity, it feels pretty good to indulge in something that simple– something that Silicon Valley could never get wrong.
Another friend of mine from São Gonçalo called Brazil “a terra da zoeira“, the land of jokes, and a Whatsapp feature that helps to perpetuate that title is its sticker feature. Conversations are packed with figurinhas, seemingly existing for every emotion and situation possible.
“It’s impossible to have a conversation without stickers, they’re so expressive,” said Simões. “I think it’s a stereotype, but Brazilians are very expressive, and those stickers help to express what we’re feeling.”
Simões further cited stickers as the heroes of Brazilian meme culture. The subjects range from viral video legends such as this guy to reality TV personalities to even their own president, and the most widespread ones almost always point to something that wouldn’t be funny out of context, that is, a Brazilian context that a foreigner wouldn’t understand. An inside joke may seem small, but when over 200 million people are in on it, it serves as a reinforcement of brotherhood.
Four of my most Brazilian stickers (from left to right): Jair Bolsonaro dumbfounded while he eats, ‘tamu junto’, a short version of the Brazilian motto “estamos juntos” (“we are together”), Érick Jacquin, the French-Brazilian Masterchef Brasil star and source of countless memes, and Zé Pequeno from Cidade de Deus, an undeniably Brazilian cult film.
Even more impressive than the self-created culture surrounding the stickers is the way people distribute them: with a single click, a Whatsapp user can save a sticker sent from another person to their personal library. They’re passed from user to user in a chain fashion, allowing Brazilians to propagate what they most find funny. Facebook Messenger, on the other hand, provides users with default sticker packs and allows them to download more from the store. Although the options are plenty, the humor is prescribed, and as a result, the degree of individuality is far more restricted. In Whatsapp, I can react with a custom-cut imported sticker of my own face, but in Messenger, I’m limited to prancing lambs and Pusheen.
Now reflecting on how I explained my love for Whatsapp to my friends, I realize that whatever features it may offer are entirely peripheral to the feelings and relations created with them. Over the past three years of seeing Brazilians use the app to bob and weave effortlessly between work and play, I dread the black-and-white practicality of digital communication in my own country. We’ve under-nurtured our creativity, so maybe it’s time we look beyond borders for cultural successes such as these. There’s a lot to be said about Whatsapp in Brazil, but it’s more than anything a testament to tech existing for social ingenuity and experimentation rather than streamlining and technical benefits. Even as COVID-19 has made disconnecting more appetizing than ever, digital communication can be beautiful and unifying if we make it so.