WhatsApp is adding a Communities feature to the eponymous instant messaging platform, adding a social media aspect to it that will have all group conversations protected by end-to-end encryption. Unlike the new community feature on Twitter that brings together like-minded users, the core idea of Communities on WhatsApp is that it allows multiple groups to be aggregated into one super-group.
But unlike social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, a WhatsApp Community won’t be openly discoverable. The phone numbers of users also won’t be publicly visible to all Community members. Only the admin and other members of a group can see them.
Since the core purpose of a Community is to bring together Groups, there will also be the facility of sending broadcast messages to all Groups at once. The app will initially allow broadcast messages to reach several thousand users at once, but an increase in the number might happen down the road.
WhatsApp is trying to keep the broadcast message noise to a minimum, which is why the company is also putting a cap on message forwarding. A forwarded message can only be pushed to one group at a time, instead of the existing limit of five conversations for personal chats. The idea is to curb the spread of misinformation by slowing things down.
Each WhatsApp Community will be identifiable with a clear description of what it’s all about, alongside a public list of all the groups that fall under its umbrella. Communities will offer features such as broadcast messages that can reach members in each group, but there are stringent admin controls in place to prevent things from getting uncontrollably chaotic like with social media groups.
Aside from creating a Community, an admin controls which existing WhatsApp Groups can join, those that need to be kicked out, the creation of new Groups, and the removal of members that create a ruckus. An admin will also have the power to delete problematic messages and media for all group members. WhatsApp hasn’t revealed if an admin can appoint a moderator on their behalf to share the burden of keeping things civil in a community.
As for the participants, there are a few useful features for them as well. A system will be put in place for Community participation. Users can choose to leave a Community at will, report offensive messages, and block problematic accounts. To make the exit from a WhatsApp Community less dramatic, there will be an option of silently leaving a group without notifying other members.
WhatsApp says it can take punitive action such as disbanding a Community and banning a few or all of its members if there are reports of conversations around coordinated violence, sharing of child sexual abuse material, and human trafficking. But unlike Apple and its iCloud scanning plans for detecting CSAM (Child Sexual Abuse Imagery), WhatsApp will rely on reports from users before it decides to vet flagged content or messages.
The Community feature is a neat addition for organizing academic conversations or sports-related discussions, and managing roles and responsibilities for building tenants. The possibilities are endless, but there is a serious risk, too. If the history of social media groups has taught us anything, the Communities will likely be exploited to speed up the dissemination of bad content at a quicker pace among a larger number of like-minded people. It can also prove to be a haven for scammers pushing shady schemes while enjoying the privacy offered by WhatsApp’s stringent encryption policy.
WhatsApp will start the soak testing of Communities this week, and is also adding a few other features to the app. Users can now share files up to 2GB in size, react to messages, and start 32-person audio calls in a group. An admin will now have the power to delete a message in group conversations. The aforementioned updates will start appearing in the weeks to come as part of a phased rollout.