Bookmarked What’s wrong with WhatsApp (

For all the benefits that WhatsApp offers in helping people feel close to others, its rapid ascendency is one further sign of how a common public world – based upon verified facts and recognised procedures – is disintegrating. WhatsApp is well equipped to support communications on the margins of institutions and public discussion: backbenchers plotting coups, parents gossipping about teachers, friends sharing edgy memes, journalists circulating rumours, family members forwarding on unofficial medical advice. A society that only speaks honestly on the margins like this will find it harder to sustain the legitimacy of experts, officials and representatives who, by definition, operate in the spotlight. Meanwhile, distrust, alienation and conspiracy theories become the norm, chipping away at the institutions that might hold us together.

William Davies discusses the place of private groups in the rise of the web. He highlights how they have become a sanctuary for people to share their prejudices through a sort of negative solidarity. Such spaces offer a different sense of authenticity than that provided by the open web.

Within this short window of time, we can see competing ideas of what a desirable online community might look like. The more idealistic tech gurus who attended ETech insisted that the internet should remain an open public space, albeit one in which select communities could cluster for their own particular purposes, such as creating open-source software projects or Wikipedia entries. The untapped potential of the internet, they believed, was for greater democracy. But for companies such as Facebook, the internet presented an opportunity to collect data about users en masse. The internet’s potential was for greater surveillance. The rise of the giant platforms from 2005 onwards suggested the latter view had won out. And yet, in a strange twist, we are now witnessing a revival of anarchic, self-organising digital groups – only now, in the hands of Facebook as well. The two competing visions have collided.

Doug Belshaw touches on this collision and how Facebook benefits.

So yes, because of end-ot-end encryption, Facebook might not know the exact details of your messages. But they know that you’ve started messaging a particular user account around midnight every night. They know that you’ve started interacting with a bunch of stuff around anxiety. They know how the people you message most tend to vote.

It is interesting to think of all this alongside Jon Dron and Terry Anderson’s discussion of sets, nets and groups in Teaching Crowds. to work on groups and nets.