The American press has been reporting breathlessly about Facebook's $16 billion acquisition of messaging app WhatsApp. It's not widely used in the U.S., but it has almost half a billion users internationally, since its messaging components can be used to skirt international text messaging rates. While working on a story a couple weeks ago, I learned that it was already widely used by a community in my own backyard: New York's Hasidic community.
Despite having a large presence in Brooklyn, the Hasidic community remains pretty cut off. Most Hasidic schools will not admit students who have internet at home; there are almost no televisions in homes; and internet filters are used voluntarily on both phones and work computers that block sites like Facebook and YouTube. In 2012, there was a rally at CitiField in Queens about the internet's risks that was so well attended the organizers had to rent nearby Arthur Ashe stadium as well to accommodate the 60,000 attendees.
So why is WhatsApp so appealing to this cloistered community? For phones that are filtered, it functions as a walled garden for multimedia communication. Since it is used expressly for peer-to-peer communication, it doesn't require users to browse the internet, thus potentially exposing them to material they might not want to see. It's more like a community bulletin system that allows users to share media that they are collecting from the world. A member of the New York Jewish community told me that it effectively created a "media ghetto," keeping out the internet at large.
"You can just send to any group of up to 50 people your entire video without worrying if they blocked themselves from this particular web page or not," he says. "While google plus and Facebook are trying to create circles and universes of friends for privacy settings, whatever you do in whatsApp never stays on the web for anyone else to snoop on. As soon as it's delivered once to the other phone it's deleted from whatsApp server. They have no vault of data of all their users."
A good example of WhatsApp usage is the murder of Hasidic landlord Menachem Stark earlier this year. Without access to the internet and television, the Hasidic community used What's App to share information about the story as it was received.
The Jewish Daily Forward published an article a few weeks ago about the app, which quoted Yiddish language newspaper Der Blatt as saying, "The rabbis overseeing divorces say WhatsApp is the No. 1 cause of destruction of Jewish homes and business," but the community member I spoke to told me that this is a very conservative and minority view of the app.
As long as these kinds of filters remain in place, the app will continue to function as a sort of networked walkie-talkie system for the Hasidic community. But now that the app is owned by Facebook, we're likely to see an explosion of usage by mainstream internet users with more conventional uses very soon.