Stop being naive when it comes to things like WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, etc.

The trend today has been to stop using WhatsApp ever since the policy was updated to allow sharing your personal information with Facebook. Some are recommending switching to other centralized messaging systems like Signal or Telegram, but there’s a problem with that too. Read on to learn how to recognize when a messaging app is out to profit off of and control you versus enabling better communications between people.

Personally, I specifically never became dependent on WhatsApp because 10 years ago I knew something like this would happen eventually. I mean the clues are pretty obvious; it’s a closed system, every app has to connect to the same centralized servers, it requires your phone number…  it was clearly designed from the beginning to:

  1. Generate a large user base over some number of years;
  2. Sell out and/or change policies in order to take advantage of the user base;
  3. Profit.

Embarrassingly, hundreds of millions of people keep falling for this scheme. I hear that in some countries, people even do business through WhatsApp.

Switching to another messaging service might seem like the solution to Facebook’s  monetization of your privacy, but be careful as you’re probably just trading one dictatorship for another dictatorship. Maybe the new dictator seems like a better dictator?

Pavel Duroc, the founder, and chief of Telegram may say things like “respect users”, but how long is that going to last? Whatsapp’s founders, Jan Koum and Brian Acton were originally good dictators who respected users, too. They even promised to protect user data after the Facebook acquisition! That didn’t last very long now, did it?

Look at History

Why is it so easy to predict that all of these internet messaging apps aren’t going to last?  It’s because none of the other practically exact same messaging apps have lasted.  All of them do very similar things and generally fail the same way. Let’s look at a few:

ICQ

  1. First instant messaging app on the internet, centralized servers;
  2. Bought by AOL, and faded to the background in favor of AIM;
  3. Mail.Ru bought ICQ, 3rd party clients blocked, Russian Intelligence Agencies allowed to read all messages.

AIM

  1. Most popular instant messaging system in the USA, centralized servers;
  2. Advertisements added along with bloated monetization methods;
  3. AIM shut down.

MSN Messenger, Windows Messenger, Live Messenger

  1. Lightweight instant messenger also worked with AIM, conveniently integrated with Windows, centralized servers;
  2. Advertisements added along with bloated monetization methods;
  3. MSN/Live Messenger shut down.

Yahoo Messenger

  1. Conveniently integrated with popular Yahoo services, centralized servers;
  2. Advertisements added along with bloated monetization methods;
  3. Yahoo Messenger shut down.

Skype

  1. Peer-to-peer instant messenger and video/voice calling only uses a centralized server for registration;
  2. Bought by Microsoft, peer-to-peer functions removed, multiple crazy app redesigns, monetization options added, functionality regularly added & removed & changed;
  3. Currently practically unusable and unreliable.

Facebook Messenger

  1. Conveniently integrated with the Facebook apps, uses standard XMPP tech, allows 3rd party apps & integrations, centralized servers;
  2. XMPP standard removed, 3rd party app integrations removed, Facebook app integration removed, separate Facebook Messenger app required, mobile web browser access to messages blocked;
  3. Facebook Messenger heavily used for privacy violations and collecting data on users in order to sell advertisements.

WhatsApp

  1. Internet messaging that matches your phone number with phone numbers in other peoples’ phones in order to easily connect you, centralized servers, promises of respect for privacy, no 3rd party apps;
  2. WhatsApp bought by Facebook, apps not maintained for all platforms, removed from some platforms;
  3. Facebook changes policy and starts using WhatsApp’s user base to sell advertising.

Anything Google (Sorry I don’t have time to list all of the failed Google messaging apps)

  1. Random new chat app, centralized server;
  2. Nobody uses it;
  3. Google shuts it down.

Today we have dozens and dozens more internet messaging apps/services, and just about all are repeating the same mistakes of the ones that have failed.  Personally, I’m getting pretty tired of recommending instant messaging apps to friends and family or coworkers only for them to eventually become awful or shut down. That appears to be how things go. 

Will Signal or Telegram ever become awful or shut down? Probably! Both actually promote an open-source nature whereas the code for the Telegram client is completely open to forking and both the Signal server and client are open source. However, both are still centralized.  With Telegram, you’re at the mercy of Pavel Durov deciding how things work with their centralized servers. With Signal, you’re not allowed to create federated servers. You’re only allowed to connect to the Open Whisper centralized servers which are under Moxie Marlinspike’s control. Both dictate what’s allowed on their respective networks and thus could change the rules at any time.

A Messaging System Success Story

So has anyone done internet messaging right?  There is one internet messaging system that does NOT use centralized servers, and it has been very successful because of that. In fact, it has outlasted all other internet messaging systems in longevity as it continues to evolve. Here are a few differences that make this one successful.

  • Anyone can make their own server, plug it into the internet, make some DNS records with a domain, and they’ll be able to transfer messages between any other server on the internet.  Your server will be able to exchange messages between its users and external users as long as it is plugged into the internet. This is called federating and it’s a way of decentralizing communications.
  • If you don’t want to make your own server, there are millions in existence. Some may be run by a business for only the business’s use, or another business may let you use one for free, or they may let you use one for a monthly fee. That’s a huge amount of flexibility.
  • The system is completely open. Not only can you make your own server, but you can also make your own client apps in any manner you see fit. It’s not just one open-source server software either. There are companies that make completely proprietary messaging servers that have more advanced features yet maintain interoperability. There are companies that make and sell special client apps. All of them are able to send messages to each other for universal, non-discriminatory, all-inclusive communications.

If you can’t tell what we’re talking about here, the big one that has been around the longest and is in use by more people than any other internet messaging protocol (4 billion people and growing) is called Email. Practically every internet connected electronic devices that you buy today asks for an email account for identification or offers to create one at first use. How many Apple users don’t have an iCloud email account?  How many Android users don’t have a Gmail account?  How many Windows users don’t have a Microsoft account? There’s no reason to pressure people into using email to send or receive messages, because they already have the app, they already have the accounts, and they’re probably already using it in at least some capacity.  If you’re in grade school, or high school, or college, or you have a job, then you’re probably already using it there as well. That means the barrier to entry is very low. 

Some people may not want to use it because they don’t like their default email client’s interface, or they get too much spam or whatever.  Well, because this protocol is completely open, you can literally change anything you want.  You can install an app like Spike that makes email feel exactly like WhatsApp.  You can subscribe to a completely fresh messaging experience like Hey.com. You can encrypt messages using the Signal protocol with Criptext (in fact there are dozens of ways to secure email messaging.) You can add universal voice/video calling with dozens of WebRTC options. You can add animated cartoons and emoji. You can add typing indicators and read receipts or new ways of file sharing. You can make temporary alias accounts to hand out if you want to have more control over who can contact you. You can block everyone except people in your contacts list. You can set up automatic rules or actions that process messages for you. If there’s anything you don’t like about email, someone has probably already made a fix for that and there’s nothing stopping anyone else from innovating on the platform. 

That’s another huge difference from all of the centralized messaging services… there is no “Email Emperor” that can make sweeping changes the way the bosses of Open Whisper, or Telegram, or Facebook, or Google can do. The ecosystem is built like the internet… You can start your own business selling better email apps like Em Client, or you can sell secure email services like ProtonMail, or you can sell server software like Microsoft Exchange or Blackberry Server, or you can sell private email servers like Helm, or you can give email service away for free and scrape user data to sell ads like Gmail. The possibilities are endless.

Just because email is one of the oldest forms of internet messaging, doesn’t mean it’s obsolete, quite the opposite, it’s mature and robust. The oldest road in the world has been around for 5500 years, and it still works.

Conclusion

It boggles my mind that so many people are clamoring for a new internet messaging system to replace WhatsApp as Facebook continues to make it terrible, while completely ignoring the smartest solution that they’ve always had. That’s not to say email doesn’t have its problems. The fragmentation of the system can be considered a weakness, but in the same way, the diversity of the system can be considered a huge strength. Regardless of how good/bad YOUR personal experience with email is, the decentralized, cooperative system of communications is clearly the smartest way to go when developing communications systems for longevity into the future. 

While personally, I believe the email system can be upgraded further as it has many times over the past few decades, there are some other decentralized communications system in development that follow the same decentralized, cooperative architecture. The Matrix Protocol, which is still quite young with not nearly as diverse an ecosystem as email, is a good one to keep your eye on. XMPP is another standards-based messaging protocol that has been around for a while and can truly be federated. XMPP also has a good number of client options and extensions.

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