How WhatsApp ‘Mods’ aids privacy in Nigeria, SA, Kenya
WhatsApp mods are made by independent developers, who repackage WhatsApp functionality and post the app online. Users install apps like GBWhatsApp and FMWhatsApp because mods offer additional functionality that WhatsApp doesn’t, such as the ability to have multiple accounts on one device.
Unlike the official WhatsApp, these apps aren’t available on the Google Play Store. The study revealed that users share them from device to device using Flashshare, or download them directly as APKs from websites. Most of these apps are relatively obscure, but the WhatsApp mods, especially GBWhatsApp, are just as popular as some of the most well-known Western apps.
However, the agony of modern-day messaging is rooted in WhatsApp privacy controls, where if a user wants to see when other people read his messages (the blue tick marks), he has to broadcast his own read receipts. But with unofficial alternatives to WhatsApp, users can have it both ways.
Caribou Data, an American firm, explained that to understand the popularity of these clones, it analysed current app dataset in three key African markets – Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, comprising 230 million app sessions (opening and closing of an app) from more than 21,000 apps and more than 4,000 panelists.
The results, according to the study, showed how dominant WhatsApp has become, with close to 90 per cent active user rate and more than a quarter of those 230 million app sessions.
Across these three markets, the report claimed that GBWhatsApp has essentially the same user base like Twitter, with three times the number of app sessions. In fact, GBWhatsApp has more sessions than Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat combined. It revealed that these messaging sessions are short, with an average duration of about nine seconds.
The report informed that WhatsApp mods, like emergent digital practices, they’re more popular with younger, male users.
According to Co-Founder of Caribou Data, Bryan Pon, almost 50 per cent of WhatsApp mod users are less than 24 years old, against 40 per cent on official WhatsApp. Whereas WhatsApp has basically become a utility similar to SMS, finding and installing a third-party app outside the Google Play Store requires a higher level of digital literacy and perhaps risk tolerance, as doing so requires manual override of Android’s built-in warning against installing “apps from unknown sources.”
Caribou Data explained that its activity also showed that many of the people using WhatsApp mods are multi-homing that is using more than one competing version of the messaging product.
For instance, across the three markets, 24 per cent of panelists use more than one version of WhatsApp, and six per cent use three or more versions. Unsurprisingly, the multi-homing population trends even younger, and even more male.
The study noted that while the vast majority of app usage in SSA is with official apps (typically, western; despite big pushes in Africa the Chinese super apps have yet to gain significant traction), the popularity of WhatsApp mods is a strong reminder that market dynamics in the global south create different digital ecosystems.
On this, it said distribution is more fragmented, such that traditional bottlenecks such as Google Play (content) and mobile operators (devices) are less powerful than in many western markets. Some of this is cost-driven (e.g., flash-sharing media and apps to avoid data costs of download), some is due to institutional structures (e.g., financial exclusion driving prepaid accounts), and some of it is the technology platforms themselves (e.g., Google restricting developers in many African countries from monetizing via the Play Store).
“But the end result is that understanding digital economies in SSA is different than in the West, and requires localized research methods and datasets that can capture the complexity and nuance of each market,” it stated.
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