Messaging apps are also one of the few parts of the social web that grew over the past two years. It’s in response to WhatsApp, Snapchat, and the Chinese-centric WeChat that Twitter improved its direct messaging feature in December, after years of neglect. It’s in response to the same that Instagram created a direct photo messaging feature. Both Twitter and Facebook responded to WhatsApp and Snapchat by making it easier to privately send photos to other users.
Is anyone using their services? We don’t know. But we do know that, as of October, people sent 400 million photos every day over WhatsApp.
3. Facebook wants to dominate in the developing world.
Facebook, like many of the major social networks, may have maxed out its membership among U.S. users. There simply aren’t many people who have yet to join who will ever join. The only place Facebook has left to grow is the developing world.
It’s already trying to grab users there. As Christopher Mims at our sister publication Quartz has detailed, Facebook makes many of its basic features free on non-smartphones using an old web protocol. This version of the service, called Facebook Zero, won it fast growth in 2012 in places like Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya. The social network tried other strategies, like partnering with mobile phone companies and creating Facebook-specific apps, to gain users in Mexico.
Since then, WhatsApp has won users in those places. In May 2013, Forrester research analyst Charles Golvin told Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel the following: “In places like Brazil, Mexico, Spain, and a number of other markets you see extraordinary numbers. Twenty-five percent of the time people spend on smartphones, they’re spending in WhatsApp.”
WhatsApp, in those countries, has often replaced SMS. (SMS charges everywhere can be exorbitant.) WhatsApp—with text and photo-sharing—is the rising social network Facebook wanted to be.
What’s more, WhatsApp often connects Western users with their friends in the developing world. Think of Nick and Julie above: WhatsApp is the link between two American Facebook users, each with a social network in India and Lesotho, respectively. If you’re trying to find users to whom you can show expensive ads, following the connections—from the U.S., out—isn’t a bad strategy.
That said, $16 billion—and maybe $19 billion, eventually—is a huge, insane amount of money.
So: Will WhatsApp keep growing? Will it give Zuckerberg better footing in in the developing world? And will it let Facebook make money from phones the same way it used to make money from desktops, and lock in the 10 year-old giant as not only the winner of the great social era (2004–2012), but the great mobile era (2012–?), too?
What’s more: Is a texting app, with security problems, that routes cheaply around a service which Internet providers charge for, really worth more than a company that transports people across the country, in gigantic, metal, flying ships?
Now we find out.
* The original version of this article identified Facebook’s number of monthly active mobile users as its number of monthly active users overall.