The Human Spirit: WhatsApp world

The ease of communication on WhatApp dovetails with our obsessive Israeli need-to-know-now mentality

WhatsApp logo (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
WhatsApp logo
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I was pickpocketed last Friday while shopping in Jerusalem. The small patent leather change purse didn’t have my credit card, which I’d luckily taken out; or even my coins, which I’d already given to my favorite beggars. The thief got my phone.
I felt bereft, out of all proportion. Not so much for the monetary loss – it’s largely insured – not even for the inability to make a phone call. There was the inevitable loss of contacts and photos I’d been negligent in not backing up, of course – a nuisance – but mostly I’ve become obsessed on checking up on my family group in WhatsApp.
Without the phone, I felt dangerously cut off, particularly in these days of escalating political tensions.
Five hundred million persons reportedly use it, but for those who don’t know about WhatsApp – which sounds like “what’s up” – it’s an instant messaging service using Internet connections, not data plans, so people can easily text from around the world to any cellphone, regardless of service provider.
You can send individualized messages on WhatsApp, but it lends itself to group communication and in my case, particularly family communications.
On WhatsApp, you can get simultaneous postings of end-of-year kindergarten parties from different cities or countries alongside instant feedback, and send out family reminders. Most of all, it provides a certain sense of security that your loved ones are okay, as they check in and you see a double check on your screen.
Indeed, by the time I got home from the useless search for my phone and sat down to email my adult children, they were already wondering why I hadn’t reacted to their latest postings. “Was everything okay?” they asked. There is an expectation one will reply instantaneously after the gentle ping in your pocket. I hadn’t realized how dependent we’d become on this technology; my silent pocket brought a level of anxiety.
It was also in the “WhatsApp world” that the first mention of the missing Israeli teens started to appear before traditional news sites carried it; it was on the app that I heard the tape of Gila-Ad Shaer’s phone call to the 100 emergency line while sitting on a bench in the swimming pool locker room. According to certain websites, “General security had leaked the call on WhatsApp against the wishes of the police.” Imagine that.
The ease of communication on WhatsApp dovetails with our obsessive Israeli need-to-know-now mentality – the same way and for the same reason we used to carry around transistor radios, and the reason we became such enthusiastic consumers of cellphones in the first place. We demand national news and personal news at the same time. In this world, where everything you do and say seems public, your WhatsApp messages remain in your phone but not on a central server, which affords more privacy.
This isn’t an advertisement for WhatsApp – an application that famously doesn’t allow advertisement – but an appreciation of how in a short time, this kind of communication has become so much a part of my life – and I’m a grandmother, not a teen techie.
WhatsApp was starting to elbow out Facebook; it was the next new thing. Which is why the social media giant that revolutionized communications recently paid $19 billion to acquire it.
In a word about its origins, the application’s creator is Jan Koum, a Californian but originally from Fastiv, Ukraine.
When the Soviet Union finally yielded to pressure and allowed the Jews to leave in 1992, Koum was a teenager, whose family reportedly left his land of birth because of the anti-Semitic atmosphere there. He and his mother headed to the Gold Coast with a suitcase full of pencils and Soviet-issue notebooks, so they wouldn’t have to pay for school supplies.
She babysat and he swept grocery stores to make ends meet. His father didn’t come with them, and communicating back and forth was expensive and complicated. His dad died, and Koum’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, sadly dying as well.
Koum taught himself computer code by buying used books and returning them to the bookstore. He eventually worked for Internet giant Yahoo, but was turned down when he applied for employment at Facebook, a decision the company may well have come to regret.
The idea for WhatsApp was reportedly hatched and perfected in the kitchen of Alex Fishman, a Russian friend of Koum’s who routinely invited other Russian speakers to his West San Jose, California home for pizza. The brainy Soviet Jews worked out algorithms on the kitchen counter while eating said pizza and drinking tea. According to Forbes, Koum was still writing down their ideas in his Soviet notebooks.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg grew up in a Jewish home in Dobbs Ferry, New York, son of a dentist and a psychiatrist. Koum dropped out of San Jose State; Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard.
Jingoist tendencies that I have, I can’t help deriving pleasure from the fact that the Jewish young man from a small town near Kiev and one from a small town near New York City have such a continuing impact on our daily lives – which are dominated by that Israeli invention, the cellphone. Of course, the productivity and success of Jews in this field has led to accusations of Protocols of the Elders of Zion-style conspiracies, and that we control not only Hollywood and banking but the Internet, too.
All this was going through my mind as I looked for my phone. I went back to all the little shops I’d visited on Friday morning.
Everyone offered helpful suggestions for finding the phone, called it for me, and looked high and low. I learned that I should have installed an application that makes your lost or stolen phone scream loudly. (The one for my phone was designed by Google; thank you to Sergey Brin, its Moscow-born inventor.) After a while, I couldn’t deny that the phone had been pilfered and I needed to begin the process of reporting it.
My phone is part of the Hadassah University Medical Center network, and in order to report the theft and reroute my phone calls, it turned out I needed to get permission from Motti Magen, the person in charge of all the tens of thousands of phones at used by hospital employees and their families. I groaned, thinking how hard it would be to find him on an Israeli summer Friday afternoon. But a youthful Pelephone staff member named Yagel got through to him. He was at the beach, not far from the rocket fire from Gaza.
Magen, who was born in Morocco and grew up in a large immigrant family in Tiberias, got his communications training in the Israel Air Force. He OK’d the needed service, and offered me words of comfort: “Not to worry – it’s only a cellphone.”
Our scattered offspring called an old landline to report on their families and wish us Shabbat Shalom. The siren soon sounded for the Shabbat to begin in Jerusalem, the echo of the ancient communications system blowing from the Temple courtyard.
No Internet, no email, no phones. We invented the application called Shabbat, too.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.