It is intuitive that some people are more concerned about their privacy than others. These people usually connect to the internet via a VPN (to prevent snooping), do not use popular applications because they rank marginally lower on privacy (not using Facebook, for example), and are strict about using only those apps on their phones that don’t ask for too much privacy-revealing information.
The vast majority, however, is not particularly concerned about privacy – as long as a reasonable amount of privacy exists, and their basic transactions are safe, they are happy to use any service that is of value to them.
Now, with the purchase of WhatsApp by Facebook, the former (more concerned about privacy) brand of people are concerned that WhatsApp, which famously refused to collect user data, did not store messages and did not show advertisements, is now going to move to the “dark side”. Facebook, in the opinion of some of these people, is notorious for its constant changing of privacy terms (making it harder for you to truly secure your data there), and they suspect that WhatsApp will go the same way sooner rather than later. And they have begun their search to move away from WhatsApp to an alternate messenger service.
The problem, however, is that WhatsApp is a network effect based service. A messenger service is of no use to you if your friends don’t use it. Blackberry messenger, for example, was limited in its growth because only users with blackberries used it (before they belatedly released an android app). With people moving away from Blackberries (in favour of iOS and Android), BBM essentially died.
I see posts on my facebook and twitter timelines asking people to move to this messenger service called Telegraph, which is supposedly superior to Facebook in its privacy settings. i also see posts that show that Telegraph is not all that better, and you are better off sticking to WhatsApp. Based on these posts, it seems likely that some people might want to move away from WhatsApp. The question is if network effects will allow them to do so.
Email is not a network effect based service. I can use my GMail to email anyone with a valid email address, irrespective of who their provider is. This allows for people with more esoteric preferences to choose an email provider of their choice without compromising on connectivity. The problem is the same doesn’t apply to messenger service – which are app-locked. You can use WhatsApp to only message friends who also have WhatsApp. Thus, the success (or lack of it) of messenger services will be primarily driven by network effects.
For whatever reasons, WhatsApp has got a significant market share in messenger applications, and going by network effects, their fast pace of growth is expected to continue. The problem for people concerned about privacy is that it is useless for them to move to a different service, because their less privacy conscious friends are unlikely to make the move along with them. Unless they want to stop using messenger services altogether, they are going to be locked in to WhatsApp thanks to network effects!
There is one upside to this for those of us who are normally not so worried about privacy. That these privacy conscious people are locked in to WhatsApp (thanks to network effects) implies that there will always be this section of WhatsApp users who are conscious about privacy, and vocal about it. Their activism is going to put pressure on the company to not dilute its privacy standards. And this is going to benefit all users of the service!