Are Israelis too dependent on WhatsApp?

A recent outage lasted for only an hour — just long enough to wonder whether it’s a good idea for a nation’s communication to run on a single app.

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Whatsapp logo in this picture illustration (photo credit: REUTERS)
Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Whatsapp logo in this picture illustration
(photo credit: REUTERS)

On Tuesday at around 10:40 am, the widely-used messaging application WhatsApp went down for one hour, resulting in only a brief hiccup in the Israeli populace’s ability to communicate.

While that momentary lapse in the app’s operation was somewhat easily circumvented by resorting to traditional phone calls, emails and SMS messages, it highlighted the application’s dominance in the country’s communication network, giving rise to a question: does Israel rely too heavily on WhatsApp?

Why do we like Whatsapp so much?

WhatsApp is the most widely-used messaging application in the country and is used to communicate even more frequently than SMS. As such, it is the host to discourse related to many core aspects of the average Israeli’s life, from preschool pick-up coordination to work correspondence; not only that, but several national organizations including the IDF and the Israeli government use it to coordinate their daily activity as well.

Surely there’s something about WhatsApp that makes it the ideal form of communication for millions throughout the country, but just what is it that makes the app so appealing?

Dr. Gilad Greenwald is an expert in communications history and a professor at the Bar-Ilan University School of Communication. According to him, WhatsApp does well because it does a little of everything. 

WhatsApp logo is seen in this illustration taken August 22, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)WhatsApp logo is seen in this illustration taken August 22, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)

“One of the more important aspects of WhatsApp is the fact that it is social media, similar even to more traditional social media like Facebook or Twitter — because it’s not only written messages that you can send, you can also send images and visuals and audio and stickers. That’s probably one of the most important elements that drive people to use WhatsApp as their main technology in order to communicate daily,” Greenwald explained.

As well, the communication platform’s stickiness among the population may have just been a matter of “right place, right time” — as Greenwald pointed out, “each and every few years sees a different dominant medium,” and WhatsApp just happens to be this period’s champion. In that sense, it may be no different than the telephone in the 90s, when “People were addicted to telephone calls. They were talking on the phone for 45 minutes, 60 minutes, just chatting with their friends,” he said.

Is Whatsapp's Israeli monopoly dangerous?

The idea that an entire country runs on a platform owned by Meta (formerly Facebook) may give rise to a few concerns among skeptics regarding the security of their information and the risk posed by the platform having such a large user base using it for all of their daily conversations.

Dr. David Faitelson, head of Afeka's software engineering school, explained one of the fundamental issues with a single piece of software being depended upon by a vast amount of users.

“The thing is that with these kinds of applications, its power or appeal is dependent on the number of people using it,” he said. “That tends to create these ‘winner takes all’ economies in which users gravitate to a single system, and that could be a problem because now you have what we call in the industry a ‘single point of failure’: you have one provider that is providing infrastructure for everybody, and if this one provider has developed a problem then it [affects everybody].”

In this sense, there is an inherent conflict present: the goal of a social media application like WhatsApp is to bring on as many users as possible in order to increase its value proposition, while in doing so it becomes more of a risk for the users in the event of a system failure. Can that be circumvented?

“The way to avoid a single point of failure is not to put all your eggs in one basket,” Faitelson said. “People use WhatsApp for important work, and it's very convenient when everything works. But when you have a problem, suddenly you realize that your very important work cannot be done now, because everybody is used to working through this tool. And that could be very, very dangerous.”

“People use WhatsApp for important work, and it's very convenient when everything works. But when you have a problem, suddenly you realize that your very important work cannot be done now, because everybody is used to working through this tool. And that could be very, very dangerous.”

Dr. David Faitelson

Faitelson described various scenarios which could affect WhatsApp. Despite its oft-touted end-to-end encryption, there are other attacks and failures that could cause serious issues for dependent users, such as denial of service attacks or nefarious actors collecting message metadata (which, unlike the messages themselves, are not encrypted).

“In a sense, a failure like this should serve as a warning,” he concluded. “If you're in a critical organization and WhatsApp goes down for a few hours, and you suddenly see that your organization stops working, that should ring the very, very, very strong bell that a lot of communication has leaked from reliable secure channels to something that could potentially be very, very dangerous if somebody decides to attack it.”

So Basically, the jury's out

Despite the temporary inconvenience posed by the infrequent server crash, it seems inevitable that people throughout the country will continue to use WhatsApp for the bulk of their interpersonal communication — at least until the next best app for the task comes along, at which point it will doubtless become unthinkable to downgrade back to the archaic platforms we use today.

As Greenwald put it, “It is, in a way, impossible to go back, because we change together with technology. We use technology and that technology affects us. It's very difficult to adjust yourself to an older medium once you're already a completely different media consumer than you were before.”

“It is, in a way, impossible to go back, because we change together with technology. We use technology and that technology affects us. It's very difficult to adjust yourself to an older medium once you're already a completely different media consumer than you were before.”

Dr. Gilad Greenwald

With that in mind, hopefully, I will never need to send an interviewee an SMS message, ever again.