It’s 3 p.m. Saturday, and you check your phone to see if your aunt replied to the message you sent asking how to save your dying plant. The little red circle next to the WhatsApp logo is a promising sign: a new message! You open the app to see, at the top of your active chats, your boss’ name and photo next to a truly horrific status: “typing.” The internal conflict begins: Are you expected to answer? Can it wait until Monday? Thankfully, you’d already deactivated WhatsApp’s read receipts and “last seen” functions—but still, the “online” status, which you can’t disable, has already betrayed you. Minutes later, you find yourself working on the project your boss messaged you about, ignoring your aunt’s heart-shaped emojis.
For millions of workers around the globe, this scene will likely sound familiar.
With its 2 billion users worldwide, WhatsApp is the third most-used social media platform (behind Facebook and YouTube). Even after its 2014 acquisition by then-Facebook, WhatsApp has continued to fulfill its original promise of “No Ads! No Games! No Gimmicks!”, while going through a remarkable evolution. It introduced voice messages in 2013 and video calls in 2016 while expanding document sharing, making it a sophisticated communication platform—and, for many, a vital part of work.
In the U.S., though WhatsApp has a larger number of users, it’s not really a workplace staple. But in countries like Mexico, where one of us now lives and the other grew up, the use (and abuse) of WhatsApp as a business tool is notable and ubiquitous across professions and ranks.
The apps commonly used for work in the U.S. are just that—used for work. Yes, you technically could set up a family Slack channel, but that would be really weird. But on WhatsApp, there is no barrier between work and life. In Mexico and other WhatsApp-dependent countries, you use the app to communicate with family and friends, but also with your primary care physician, your dog’s veterinarian, and your plumber. Your apartment building’s management announces the water will be shut down this afternoon on your building’s WhatsApp group. You have to be extra cautious not to send the message intended for your group chat with your colleagues to the group that includes your boss. And then, of course, there are the WhatsApps from coworkers letting you know that they just sent you an email.
WhatsApp, which came on the scene in 2009 and started to really take off a couple of years later, was launched at a time when sending text messages came with a price tag in Mexico. Offering a free alternative to steep phone bills, WhatsApp gained immediate popularity. The average Mexican WhatsApp user spends 20 hours on the app per month, according to Hootsuite, compared with 7.6 hours for U.S. users (and a whopping 31.4 hours for Indonesian users). The app has an estimated 89 million users in Mexico, a country with a population of 126 million, about a quarter of which is age 14 or under. In other words, the probability that the person you are trying to reach uses WhatsApp is extremely high—they just need a phone number and a WiFi connection or data plan.
But because WhatsApp is phone number-based, many must use their personal phone numbers, effectively erasing the boundary between work and life. Communicating with colleagues and supervisors also means being involuntarily available weekends, vacations, and afterhours. If you are chatting with your partner on a Wednesday night, you can reply to your colleague.
It also means losing a great deal of your privacy and control over who can contact you and when. A colleague shared your number with a client, and suddenly your WhatsApp inbox is flooded with unwanted messages from someone during weekends and holidays. WhatsApp, after all, has no out of office—the only thing that could come close is changing your status, but doing so is pointless, as everyone just ignores it. (Isabel’s status has been “Available” since Oct. 31, 2010.) Could you just ignore the message? Probably, but you can’t escape the reminder of your to-do list. WhatsApp has no schedule, and neither can you.
Unless you’re a sales representative or customer service agent using WhatsApp for Business (which actually does let users send auto replies and set schedules!), working on WhatsApp destroys productivity. Yes, communication is fast (assuming the other person replies), but it’s also chaotic. It’s great to message a colleague a quick question, but it’s hard to concentrate on one task while getting constant, indistinguishable notifications that could either be the reviewed annual budget or pictures of your friend’s newborn. Chats can be muted, sure, but it’s simply impossible to mute personal contacts during work hours and switch to mute work contacts during nights or weekends.
Work messaging platforms like Teams or Slack that are more common in the U.S. definitely replicate some of the negative features of WhatsApp—like the “always available” culture. But they represent more fenced-in systems. On Slack, you’re probably not communicating with people you don’t work with, and even then you’re really only communicating with people in your company. Americans don’t seem to be bothered by pivoting to email—it is like they want to stand up for the right to update the profile picture you want your loved ones to see, without worrying it might look unprofessional to your manager or colleagues. (Another major WhatsApp dilemma! Is it acceptable to have a profile photo of you and your partner, or you on the beach? Is it weird that a consultant you work with sees that photo?)
Nodding at the overwhelming nature of WhatsApp groups, the company recently announced a new feature: Communities. WhatsApp Communities will be different from regular WhatsApp groups, the company says, because they will allow for smaller discussion groups within communities, while also offering more control: Announcements can only be shared by admins in the “main announcement group” and community members can chat in smaller groups created by the admin, who can delete messages. WhatsApp also recently doubled the size of participants allowed in a group to 512 and announced new commercial features aimed at businesses, which will be able to use a cloud-based programming interface to more easily connect with customers.
Realistically, though, there’s little reason to believe new features like Communities will make a dent in the problems surrounding WhatsApp and work, because the real problems are not about WhatsApp. They’re about work culture in countries like Mexico.
We should acknowledge here that while WhatsApp is used across sectors and class divides, many of the problems we’re talking about relate to workers in the formal economy and with some level of privilege, likely working at a desk. The exploitation of workers in the informal labor market, as well as service workers in the formal market, goes far beyond work-life boundary issues.
Looking at the average employee, Mexico is second only to Colombia for the greatest number of hours worked per year—2,124, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By comparison, the average U.S. worker clocks in 1,767 hours per year, whereas in Germany, which finds itself at the bottom of the list, that number is a glorious 1,332. (And these numbers wouldn’t necessarily count nonworking time that employees spend responding to work messages.)
So, yes, what we really need are labor systems that respect workers and their boundaries. But to get there, we also need an app that does the same.
Real change depends on changing labor laws and company policies, not shifting individual behavior. But that doesn’t mean individual behavior isn’t important. And this is where the hard part comes in—as much as we like to complain about the “always working” culture on WhatsApp, we also actively contribute to it. Because, yes, it’s convenient! It’s easier to send a WhatsApp to your coworker at 7 p.m. asking her for an update than to wait and remember to email her the next morning (if only WhatsApp added the function to schedule messages!). It’s gratifying to get a quick response from your boss because you see she’s online, even if it is a holiday.
The default status on WhatsApp is “Hey there! I am using WhatsApp.” It will take work from all of us to switch that status to “Hey there! I’m not always using WhatsApp”—and to let others do the same.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.