It has been almost a year since Facebook owned Whatsapp last reported its Monthly Active Users (MAU) in India, and it’s likely that Whatsapp MAU base has exceeded 100 million by now. 70 million was the number reported in November 2014, around 29% of India’s then reported mobile Internet connection base of 235.7 million.
I’d wager that our estimate of 101 million is a very conservative one: The top 4 telecom operators, who have 188 million mobile Internet connections among them, have alone added, on an average, more than 10 million mobile Internet connections a quarter over the past three quarters. (more data in our Mobile Internet in India report). The IAMAI has reported that India added 52 million Internet users in the last six months alone, and it’s unlikely that Whatsapp’s growth was slower. My guess would be that their monthly active user base is closer to 120 million now. The company now has 900 million active users globally, second to Facebook which has a mobile daily active user base of 844 million and a mobile monthly active user base of 1.31 billion for the quarter ended June 2015.
More media on Whatsapp than many other platforms
In January this year, WhatsApp claimed that its users were sending over 30 billion messages everyday. A year and half ago, 700 million photos and 100 million videos were being shared on Whatsapp on a daily basis, at a time when it had 500 million users globally. While there is no recent data on usage, anecdotally, it is fairly evident that there is a great deal of content being shared and consumed on and via Whatsapp, and it is a significant platform for media distribution in India.
The challenge with Whatsapp is that all of this is happening without the platform being conducive to media distribution, and limitations that Whatsapp places on its usage:
1. Closed API: Unlike its peer WeChat, Whatsapp has a closed API, and doesn’t allow automation of messages. This means that each update to a Whatsapp group has to be added manually, although there have been instances in the past where companies have found workarounds to interact with potential customers and automate information. Note that these workarounds may have since been plugged. We haven’t checked.
2. No Authentication: The biggest challenge around Whatsapp as media distribution platform is the authentication of information: no users or sources are verified officially by Whatsapp, in the way that they are by Twitter, Google (G+) and Facebook. This essentially means that if someone is spreading rumors, governments have no means of countering the misinformation with authenticated information, because the rumor-mongers can easily respond with false information as well, which can be easily made to look like authenticated information. Given that news entities also are in no position to also share verified news, the only likely solution available to authorities is to shut down the Mobile Internet (or maybe just Whatsapp). Even in Dadri, the site of a barbaric and medieval mob lynching, the police are keeping a close watch on Whatsapp groups.
3. Limited number of users in groups: Whatsapp limits the number of users in a group to 100, which means that as a media entity, you would have to create multiple groups (which can be confusing), and update many groups simultaneously. That adds more work.
4. Everyone can update, everyone can call: given that updates are transient, media entities will have to have a person dedicated to managing the groups. What happens when users start interacting, and messaging within the group? There is no way of limiting responses or separating official messages (from the group owner) from that of the user. That is, in a sense, democratization of the group, where all messages are equal, but it does make things difficult for publishers.
5. No data: you’ll never know how often your message (or video/photo) has been forwarded, where it has been shared, how many people viewed it. These are basic stats that help publishers figure out what works.
Despite all these constraints, the BBC has run news and information messaging services on Whatsapp, starting with the last Indian Elections.
I’m not sure if Whatsapp is ever going to open up as a media platform, the way WeChat has (to both content and commerce), because it sees itself as a peer-to-peer messaging services first and foremost. Challenges around authentication, lack of data, limitations on the user base, and disallowing automation are all creation of the platform that make it difficult for the media. At the same time, it’s also difficult to ignore the fact that it is fast emerging as a major platform for media consumption, and with a significant audience for media and content. It’s also evident that this growth in consumption and distribution of media is not by Whatsapps choice. Something is going to give at some point in time: and it will, in all likelihood, be around Whatsapp easing some of its restrictions.