Social Sustainability of WhatsApp

Aug 2017-Apr 2018

There has been an increase in the tendency to misuse and manipulate online communication platforms such as WhatsApp by vested interests. A good example is the spread of fake news, rumors and sinister messages in India using WhatsApp. In the month of April 2018, following the false rumors about child kidnappers, over 22 people were assaulted and killed in India. Messages are increasingly being shared on WhatsApp to develop tension between religious communities and political supporters. Albeit, these popular online communication platforms are fulfilling an important social need, their "unintended" and malicious use cannot sustain the positive social impact of these technologies. As part of this project, I highlight the factors that affect the social sustainability of WhatsApp and the influence these factors have on our online communication?


I performed a qualitative study over a period of around 3 months. The objective was to learn about the WhatsApp usage of individuals and identify factors that influence their WhatsApp usage positively or negatively. A total of 18 regular users of WhatsApp from India (9 male and 9 female) were interviewed. Next, in vivo and descriptive coding was performed on the transcribed data which helped me identify 'factors' that affected the ‘capacity’ of usage of WhatsApp. Capacity was defined as the ability to engage with the platform in a way that is meaningful and positive.

Following the coding, a framework was designed using the communication model of Gulf of Evaluation and Execution as proposed by Don Norman as shown in image 1. The effect of each factor was analyzed with respect to the stages of this framework and the factors were assigned to the stage in the model that they affected. Also, the factors were grouped based on the what aspect of the system do they affect or are affected by. The aspects being- Design, Technology, Emotions, Miscellaneous. Based on this analysis, I formulated a set of 12 design guidelines that can help us design more socially sustainable instant messaging platforms.

Image 1: Modified model of the Gulf of Evaluation and Execution


1. The designer should adapt the system to diverse cultural differences like language, beliefs, age, gender etc. in the user group and accommodate the difference in understanding of the user group.

2. The system should ensure the availability, awareness and context of use of its features.

3. The system should help the users form easy and relevant connections by working within the constraints of available information and technology.

4. The system must ensure timely, reliable and transparent feedback and feed-forward mechanisms in chosen exchanges of information and conversations.

5. The system should offer control to the user to determine what information or data to receive or deliver.

6. System should allow the user to reliably connect and share information across other applications

7. The system should ensure security of shared data for all its users and users must be aware of the security measures in place and its limitations.

8. The system should promote trust and encourage users to provide accurate information through the system. (Maturity) Example: Report Feature (Positive), Lack of measures to prevent fake profiles (Negative)

9. System should be updated regularly to accommodate new technological, social and cultural requirements of the user. Example: Negative: Applications such as Orkut failed because they didn’t adapt themselves with the upcoming needs of the society. Positive: Messenger and WhatsApp identified the growing popularity of ‘stories’ feature on Instagram and made changes to their systems accordingly.

10. The system should be able to adapt to the need of the user based on different contexts of conversation(formal/informal etc.). (Quality of Life) Example: Negative: A good deal of plans are made on WhatsApp. Groups of all sorts are made but WhatsApp doesn’t provide any special features to plan the events smoothly. Positive: Messenger however, lets us set reminders and conduct polls while planning a meeting or event.

11. The system should ensure the disposal of irrelevant data and keep records of relevant data based on the users choice. (Quality of Life) Example: Negative: WhatsApp does nothing to encourage the deletion of unnecessary and irrelevant data (Inactive groups etc. ) from the platform. Positive: Google Photos encourages the user to empty space on phone when the data is uploaded online.

12. The system should offer help and answer any question that a user has regarding the system at all times. Example: Negative: Most applications, including WhatsApp ask the user to write to them in case they need help with anything on the system. The conversion rate of people who need help with the platform and those who write is very less. Positive: Uber has a wonderful help tab with answers to all probable problems a user may face. It makes it very user to report a problem he has been facing with the system.


1. Social Sustainability of Online Instant Messaging Platform—WhatsApp. SS Gupta, P Upadhyay. Research into Design for a Connected World, 473-482