Breaking away from WhatsApp - Why is it so difficult?
I have been trying to break away from WhatsApp for a very long time now. The reason for this is that I am a very freedom-loving person, and I am not willing to sacrifice my freedom. Something that is already common practice with some friends. In some cases, I am even required to adopt their lifestyle. However, being online 24/7 and completely transparent is not how I want to live. Nevertheless, I do not want to delve into more details about this lifestyle, as I will write a separate article on this topic. The much more important question is why it is so difficult to break away from it?
The casual people
One of the reasons why I cannot break away is the "casual" and unquestioning people I want to have contact with. Even if I often feel like just severing communication. Furthermore, it has nothing to do with the competence or intelligence of these people, as other software might be more difficult to understand since I know enough educated people, even people who have studied computer science. It has more to do with the fact that many people in the 2020s find every slightest inconvenience or obstruction highly unpleasant and prefer to spend their few minutes, which they would have to invest, in media for their amusement.
In the past, I have frequently attempted to switch people over to alternatives, and it has failed due to the laziness of the people involved. It even seems that if you have to do more than go to the regular App Store, press an install button, and open the application, people lose interest or are overwhelmed.
People are overwhelmed by their freedom
For example, one time, I wanted to test XMPP/Jabber with different people. This is a free communication protocol, which has existed since the 1990s and has been improved since then. The first people already failed at the registration because XMPP/Jabber is a federated system, and you have the freedom to choose a provider to register with. So it is similar to what happens with email, and at this point, many young people will ask: "What? But email can only be done through Gmail." The sobering answer is "No!" There are hundreds, even thousands, of providers globally because sending, receiving, and managing emails are open protocols and standards. Even a hobbyist IT person could create an email server to write and receive emails with their own domains. This can not be prevented by Google nor brought under their control. Additionally, this is a good thing because I, and other freedom-loving people, do not want all our emails to be read/scanned, profiles of us to be created, be under constant surveillance, data from our emails to be sold, or millionaire corporations to become even richer as a result.
I had compiled a small list of XMPP/Jabber servers that seemed trustworthy or were known to be actively maintained to accommodate people who are overburdened with their freedom. Additionally, it was important to me that these servers were geographically close. At the very least, these servers should be located in the same country since the communication paths are shorter that way. As long as the people had managed to decide on a provider or the decision was simply left to me (some people really cannot do anything with their freedom), the next obstacle appeared.
Since XMPP/Jabber is a free protocol, any software developer can also develop their own client (in this case, a client is a piece of software or application compatible with XMPP/Jabber). Therefore, you do not limit your freedom to a specific client, like when you use WhatsApp (only WhatsApp's client), but you can freely decide which client you want to use. Obviously, this is sensible because you do not need every feature or software that might not match your needs for various reasons. Also, for these exact reasons, software developers devote their free time to programming such software and making it freely available. These types of software are also frequently called open-source software because the programmer makes the program code freely available so the software can be used free of charge. Unfortunately, so many people are overwhelmed, yet again, with their freedom when they take this step.
There are always problems with Apple!
If there is an open or industry standard, which is also well spread and accepted, Apple (and often also Microsoft) opposes it. They remind me of pubescent teenagers who supposedly know more about everything and refuse to let their parents tell them anything. Even if they have facts, even if they would make better decisions based on experience, and even if they would take the better path if they were purely rational. But no! Not like that! Why should you accept industry standards, accepted technologies, and well-functioning methods when you go in an entirely different direction?
One time, I tried to send a picture from my Android smartphone to a person in the same room as me. It was not possible because the person had an iPhone. You really do not need to have studied computer science to activate Bluetooth, select a file, and send it. However, it was almost impossible! Apple does not want that because they have AirDrop. Their proprietary software that works exclusively with Apple devices and does not even use Bluetooth. The path we had to take then was to send the image once around the planet and have it pass through the hands of data-hungry companies so that it would find its way back to the device of the person standing a few inches away from me. Hence using a world-renowned messenger that I actually wanted to get out of my life: WhatsApp. Yet, as they say at Apple: "Think Different."
This is by no means unique to Apple. I could write up an entire blog article about how Apple stopped innovating in the 1980s, how everything is going wrong, why even the economy is being slowed down, why the environment is suffering, why their devices are already technically outdated when they are released, and why people still spend astonishingly more money on outdated technology and devices with planned obsolescence than they do on competing products. However, for the time being, this is only about as free as possible messengers that do not spy on you.
Although, you probably guessed it already. We tried to find Jabber/XMPP apps for iPhone, and the only ones we could find were outdated, not functioning correctly, or even commercial. So it was clear that the person quickly lost patience and switched back to WhatsApp. Jabber/XMPP is not a niche product. It has been on the market for over 20 years and is available for various platforms such as Linux, BSD, Solaris, and yes, it is even available for wild and exotic platforms such as Windows.
I have never developed software for Apple products and probably never will. Nevertheless, I have heard from other developers that developing software for the iPhone is more of an obstacle course than an enjoyable hike. This might explain why there are so few excellent applications for the iPhone.
Breaking the mold is a deterrent
When I discovered the software DeltaChat, I saw great potential for the people who are casuals and overwhelmed with their freedom to embrace it. The concept is brilliant! It is based on emails and even encrypts the messages automatically, yet, it features an interface similar to modern instant messengers (such as WhatsApp). All you have to do is enter your email inbox login details, enter the recipient's email address, and type a message. You are not required to enter a subject or set up key pairs for encryption. Now you have an encrypted chat, and all you have to do is click on the contact's profile and start typing as you normally would. There is no more need to enter an address or a subject anymore. Basically, DeltaChat does nothing other than imitating WhatsApp, except that it is based on an old and federal system, the email.
Regarding DeltaChat, I also recommend that everyone set up a new email account used exclusively for DeltaChat, and there are many associations and charities that are dedicated to privacy and offer free email accounts for donations.
Since there are people who do not take my advice because "I already have an email inbox on Google. Why should I listen to someone who has studied this and has already dealt with the software when I know better?" and then, of course, problems arise. Then a major problem was that the Gmail application had been continuously logging in every email, and since every message in the chat is an email, this happens very frequently. Furthermore, on top of that, DeltaChat sends encrypted emails that cannot be read in Gmail. At this point, I have to point out that this is an excellent thing because here some people have probably already been deterred because "Help! I cannot read something. I better get back on WhatsApp." Messages written to a person using DeltaChat are only viewable by that person through DeltaChat because the messages are encrypted, and the key is only known by the DeltaChat software, not by Google. So if you use Gmail for this, Google can only access metadata but not read any of the emails' content (this is a positive!). However, you can already learn a lot from metadata. Therefore, I strongly recommend that you provide minimal to no metadata to a data collector. Although I may repeat myself. Please use another email provider and not Google's.
Another thing that had discouraged people was a QR code to verify the keys on the Swiss messenger Threema. Threema has end-to-end encryption, which means that only the sender and the receiver of a message can read it, no one else, not Google, not Apple, nor the operator of this application, really (almost) no one. I say almost because there could still be a tiny chance that an attacker has exchanged the keys along the way, which could happen with Autocrypt, for example, which is also used by DeltaChat. So the sender sends an encrypted message that arrives at the attacker, which can be decrypted by the attacker, who encrypts it again with their own keys and sends the message forward to the receiver. Thus, the sender and receiver think that they have sent or received an encrypted message that no one else can read. This is called a man-in-the-middle attack. One sufficient safeguard against this scenario is that if the sender and the receiver meet in real life, they can verify the keys. This works reasonably well with QR codes. Therefore, the so-called fingerprints of the keys are compared, and since these are unique, they must match for the sender and the receiver. If the fingerprints do not match, it is highly probable that the keys have been exchanged, and I would recommend that data is no longer exchanged through this line.
What can possibly be off-putting about verification, then? When I ran this process past someone, that person was visibly uncomfortable with it. He thought I was photographing private data or something similar. At the time of the crime, the same person had at least a handful of applications installed on his smartphone from companies that are not secretive about collecting, processing, and selling private data. Yet, the person in question is someone who cares about data protection and helps him encrypt his data securely, and then he is suspicious of this person? Seriously?
Bugs and flaws are also deterrents
Alternatives to WhatsApp often include hobby projects that were developed by software developers in their downtime. Regularly, the source code of the software is published (open source), as this is an excellent way to find more free developers interested in the project and want to develop it further. This is not proportional to multi-million dollar companies that have hired dozens of full-time software developers, user-interface developers, graphic designers, testers, consultants, psychologists, etc., who can develop software with many user-friendly and good-looking features that use psychological tricks to capture your attention.
For me, I am often stunned by how one person (or a few) can develop great software in their limited leisure time that can also be somewhat usable. If I find a bug while using it, I report it to the developer because they can only fix something they know exists. Also, occasionally, if I come across software that I actually like a lot and the developer has provided a donation option, I will donate a small amount. Of course, this is not commensurate with a software developer's salary, but it shows my appreciation. Moreover, an email with motivating words can help a software developer stay on track and improve the software (at least it would help me) because the developer does not have a whole range of spy tools that could tell them how many people are using their software right now, what and with whom the users are writing to, how long they are using the software per day, etc.
Other people react entirely differently. If an application crashes, a menu item is hard to access, a desired action cannot be performed immediately, or some other minor problem arises, some people quickly become nervous or even aggressive. Instead of giving constructive feedback to the software developer with limited time, the application is deleted or, best of all, poorly rated once it has been downloaded from the conventional App Store. Which is something I personally find to be absolutely disrespectful. Folks like this probably also go to the nearest street musician and complain about why their music does not sound like the music of the millionaire pop stars from the Billboard Top 10 charts, kick the musician in the shins, then walk away totally outraged.
WhatsApp changes behavioral patterns
When I was a rookie member of a kickboxing club, the phrase "It is in the chat!" kept coming up in conversations. It did not matter if it was about rescheduling, an internal event, or anything else. After some time, I asked the coach how to access this chat since I was surfing the club website with my "Google-free" smartphone (I actually had a Google-free smartphone for quite some time). Subsequently, he said that the chat was on WhatsApp. At that moment, I just wondered if it was even possible to offer such a thing in an association from the perspective of data protection, and I was concurrently horrified by this and then explained to him that I do not have WhatsApp. From this point on, you could tell by the look on his face that he had pegged me for a caveman or some Amish fellow, and then he wanted to reach for my smartphone and said with misplaced aid: "Come on! I will install it for you quickly." Later, when I told him I did not want it, he did not understand my world at all. However, in hindsight, I should have just let him do it because I would have loved to see his face when he tried to install an application on an Android that did not have the Play Store on it at all.
Even when I was dating, some situations were different because of WhatsApp. I exchanged phone numbers with a beautiful woman I met at a New Year's Eve party. We danced, had fun, and I definitely wanted to see her again. Two days after that, I called her, and she was noticeably uncomfortable, even though I was the one who summoned up all the courage to actually call her. For me, it takes a lot of courage to do that because I am actually a very shy man, and I had already gotten weak at the knees when I approached this woman. Over WhatsApp, we would probably have spent weeks getting to know each other very slowly, and with simple phone calls, everything went a lot faster, as we also had our first date shortly after. However, she thought that I had given her the wrong number because she could not find me on WhatsApp. Possibly, this made me even more attractive when I then called her unexpectedly.
On my incomplete global travels, I met a lot of great people. However, virtually all of them really are WhatsApp users. Only a few Apple fanboys/girls were strictly against WhatsApp and were only reachable through Facetime. This makes no sense to me, neither from a data protection standpoint nor logically, because again, Facetime is Apple's proprietary software that is only available for Apple devices, so you are actually already saying that you are not interested in communicating if someone is not part of the same cult. Furthermore, in the Asian region, other messengers are more widespread since Facebook & Co. are banned in some countries, and their software is censored. Without WhatsApp, I never would have had as much to do with different people as I did, which saddens me greatly. The reason is that probably nobody would have bothered to, for example, email me or even briefly call me if they wanted to meet up with the freshly assembled group. Moreover, the reason would not be that I might be unpleasant to be around. Instead, it would be because of the problem I already mentioned; they are "casual."
Why not just use conventional emails?
This invention is even older than the World Wide Web itself, is constantly being developed, and still has some shortcomings. However, the problem is how the way people use email has changed. In the beginning, there were only specific programs (email clients) that could be used to send, receive, and manage emails. In the 1990s, freemail providers made this available through websites, and it spread so quickly that many people saw writing emails through a browser as normal and through a special client, such as Thunderbird or K-9 Mail, as exotic or even nerdy. Actually, this trend was broken by Google, but only because people are forced to have a Google account, and the services, such as Gmail, are automatically installed on their smartphones. I do not know of anyone who proactively installs and uses an email client on their smartphone.
This is already the first problem. Freemail providers finance themselves through advertising. Initially, this was done by simply displaying advertising banners and texts. However, today, it is already commonplace for entire emails to be automatically scanned, for attachments to be opened, and for data to be collected, processed, and sold. The data not only helps to target advertising to people, but the data is also of interest to other companies and even criminals. Therefore, there are many more stakeholders and consequently much more money for the company that sells your data.
With this business model, freemail providers have totally "forgotten" to implement encryption for their users' communications since encrypted data is useless data. At least it would be useless for anyone who does not care about the content of the communication but wants to sell the data.
So if you try to introduce encryption for emails to a group of people using different email clients (browser on a PC, application on a smartphone, a TV, a fridge, or whatever other devices people are using to write emails), you are not going to get very far because nobody knows how to do it since this feature is simply missing. Moreover, trying to get someone to switch to a good email client that can handle encryption is about as impossible as convincing someone to ride a bicycle for a short distance to work, claiming that it is much healthier to do so if that person has been driving a car for years and has gained a lot of weight.
So the most important thing about a private conversation is eliminated, which is the privacy. Without proper encryption, you can be quite sure that a conversation in the 2020s is not truly private.
However, looking past this shortcoming, I still wanted to try communicating with a few friends through email. Unfortunately, this failed because of the simple controls.
To reply to an email, press the button labeled "Reply," if you want to forward it, press "Forward," and if you want to reply to all of the people in the conversation, press on "Reply all." This is self-evident, and many of you are probably wondering why I am going in-depth about this. However, this is exactly where the group communication failed.
Frequently, only I received a reply, and other group members did not know anything about it. So I had to forward the message to the other participants, and I had to remember to add the sender to the list of recipients so that if someone pressed "Reply all" again, everyone would receive the message. Although I have reminded the sender several times to press "Reply all" if they want to reply to everyone, occasionally, I was the only recipient of the message. Furthermore, I assume that other participants could have been the only recipients of some messages because only the last sender of a message when using "Reply" always receives the message. Additionally, if these recipients did not notice that they were the only recipient and did not proactively correct this negligent mistake of the colleague by forwarding the message to all participants, other participants did not know anything about it either.
Unfortunately, a private group conversation through email quickly descended into chaos due to gross negligence. At some point, you also have to criticize people for their ignorance when they ignore a mistake despite having been informed of it several times and continue to make the same mistake. Alternatively, people do it on purpose because I cannot imagine by any stretch of the imagination that anyone would unintentionally make the same mistake repeatedly.
- The most well-known messengers on the planet are hosted by multi-million dollar companies. Also, these messengers are developed so that there is no resistance to installing or using them arises, and attention is always attracted to these messengers.
- People have been conditioned to behave in a certain way. If the software has to be operated differently, this is considered unpleasant, even if, objectively speaking, there is a better way. However, people often lack the courage to try something new unless it is explicitly mentioned that it is something new, and people are advised to avoid the old habits.
- Lamentably, somehow, the majority fails to question how a supposedly free application can generate millions of dollars?
- A messenger that is developed by one or a few hobby developers in their spare time is not valued and cannot compete with messengers that have seven-digit annual development costs because people have been conditioned to believe that software does not cause "problems" since those people probably cannot deal with problems in the meantime either.
- I have had great success with switching when I do not expose people to their freedom, but rather, I take them by the hand and do not even attempt to explain things in greater depth. Instead, I just explain enough for it to work. Many people follow an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality, which is disastrous in my eyes.
- I expect the biggest success for a switch when there is an application that is actually secure but just as user-friendly as WhatsApp. And for that, there are still a few messengers on the list I need to test.
I am nowhere close to having tested all the messengers that meet my requirements, and although I have tested many more messengers that I have not even mentioned here, that does not say anything about them as of yet, nor can I make a final recommendation. The technologies mentioned were only the ones that were tested in the specific situation, and likewise, asserts nothing about their suitability. However, I am definitely very motivated to find the right messenger and write a series of articles about it, and maybe I will get a little closer to the utopian goal of getting people more inclined to communicate freely and privately versus being thoroughly probed by invisible giants.