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Dear BBC, your WhatsApp election coverage idea is not scalable

whatsappBBC has started pushing out audio bulletins and other updates related to Indian elections via WhatsApp, WeChat and BBM this week.

To get these updates, one can send a message ‘join’ via WhatsApp to +919650801273. On WeChat, you can join by searching for the ID ‘BBCNewsIndia’ and on BBM by searching for ‘BBC Hausa’ from the ‘Channels’ tab. Alternatively, you can use BBM PIN: C00334DDD.

With this move, BBC is trying to get users where they are most active and messaging clients are way up in that list. WhatsApp are reportedly on par with Facebook in terms of monthly and daily active users as a percentage of total install base.

WhatsApp has 40-45 million active users in India, as opposed to Twitter which according to a report had 33 million active users in May last year. Facebook recently crossed 100 million active users in India, but messages posted on Facebook pages don’t always reach users due to the way Facebook algorithm works.

Why this idea is not scalable

Since WhatsApp does not have any API it looks like the messages are sent manually to everyone who has signed up for the service from the BBC account. This means you might have to wait a long time after sending the initial ‘join’ request to get a response. I wonder how the person handling the account will manage this account if 100 people join the service in time frame of fifteen minutes?

The only other option is for BBC to create a group and to tell everyone who wants updates to join it. However in the case, handling the noise or moderating all the messages posted by the public would be an issue.

It is not just BBC, even Kerala police is trying to use WhatsApp to communicate with public, but it’s not clear how these ideas can scale as there is no support from the messaging service. The best thing WhatsApp can do as of now is add more moderation controls so that brands can at least use groups that would allow only one-way communication or even pre-approved posting of content. Ideally WhatsApp should screen these brands and give them access to the service’s APIs so members of a brand’s social media team can access it from multiple devices. However, the company’s focus seems to be elsewhere as of now.

Brands faced a similar issue with Facebook also a few years back, as there was a lot of confusion whether brands should create Facebook profile, group or a page. However in that case, the question was about effectiveness and the only scalability issue was that there was a limit of 5,000 friends on Facebook profiles while groups and pages did not have such a limit. May be WhatsApp could look into what Facebook has done with Pages and come up with a similar solution?

Update: Trushar Barot who is the ‘chat apps guy’ at BBC Global News + Assistant Editor, BBC UGC and social media hub, has clarified that this is only a pilot to test the service.

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