Robert Dempster
Welcome to my PMB blog, the Seventy Ninth!
WhatsApp, has it been compromised by Facebook?
1 June 2018

Proudly South African South African flag

The first time I actually used the Internet to "text" someone was way back in 1992. I was on sabbatical at Monash University in Melbourne Australia at the time and I used the Unix "talk" command line application to communicate (chat) with a colleague back at my own university in Pietermaritzburg South Africa. I would type a line on my terminal and he would respond by typing a line on his terminal. That was all the bandwidth could accomodate back then and the delay (time taken for the signals to travel over the copper telephone line from Melbourne to Pietermaritzburg) was so great that I had to tun"local echo" on as I am not a touch typist. These days one might experience the sort of delay I am talking about when you watch television and the war correspondent in the far flung and unfortunate land is being interviewed via a satellite connection.

The next "text" I either sent or received was probably an SMS (Simple Messaging System) using my Nokia 19XX or whatever. It probably was in the early 1990's. Other than rely on the SMS system to be informed when the is activity on my bank account, I have never been a great SMSer and I currently have 389 free SMSes available on my Cell Phone.

When WhatsApp arrived on the scene I like to think I was one of the early users of the system. I like to think I am in good company as South Africa is WhatsApp Country. I have also never been tempted by any of the other latter day intruders other than Skype, Google (and of course its forebears), Facebook, YouTube and Sports Tracker (since 2012). I am of course leaving out the browsers and the contribution of Tim Berners-Lee.

If your primary interest here is my view of the Internet and applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook, then you might want to skip this paragraph and the next one. Now I am never going to try and pretend that I do not feel threatened by all of this stuff and the manner that much of it is thrusting stuff into your face you did not request and have no interest in. At this point I should say that for as long as I can remember I have disliked whatever it is becoming too big and then using its power to unduly influence the behaviour of other stuff. In terms of computing, data communications and networking. The first corporate to do this in my space was Microsoft. The result was that I abandoned Microsoft for Linux, GNU and Emacs around 1993/4 and have never regretted that move. Ironically it is only now that I am writing this that I am reminded of Microsoft's introduction of the programming language, "C#" as a response to the growing popularity and influence of Java.

At this point I should mention that when I retired eight years ago I forsook my open source principles and involved myself with a company that is arguably even more prescriptive than Microsoft. I bought a 21 inch iMac and have loved it to bits, probably because it has provided the most consistent and intuitive GUI that I have worked with. When my wife retired about five years ago, she kindly bought me a replacement and that is what I am using right now to type this. What you might not expect me to say is that I am using Emacs to do the document preparation. But for me it was a no brainer as the XOS GUI sits on top what is basically a variant of UNIX. So I can and still do write and run shell scripts to do some of the basic data processing that I need to handle. Anything fancier than that is done using Java.

Returning to the Internet and applications such as WhatsApp and Facebook. I guess one should really start with the role email has played and continues to play. It was there at the beginning and it played a huge role. It is still a primary communication tool and has served me well in terms of keeping in touch with family that do not reside in our neck of the woods. Next I guess it would be Skype, and the manner in which it brought down the cost of calling a landline in a foreign clime from my computer. While the role it has played has been diminished by the next application, namely WhatsApp, it is still there and remains the go to on my cell phone which would be using data in order to allow me to contact someones landline or cell phone while we are abroad.

So what about WhatsApp. Well as I have already mentioned I have used it since it was first available in South Africa and because of its popularity in South Africa, it remains the "goto" application for communication with family, friends and various other groups of people. It has never stuck arbitrary and annoying stuff between me and my use of the application. While it has slowed up somewhat at times more recently, it remains ultra reliable and has at the same time grown to include other useful functionality. At the moment I simply cannot see myself switching to anything else.

And so I guess that leaves Facebook.Let me start by admitting that I log into Facebook at least once a day. That said, I have to add that it is a "love/hate" relationship. I love the manner in which it keeps me in touch with family, friends and even the political party that I support. Also the manner in which I get to experience what life is like if their part of the world, in some cases places I will probably never travel to.Of course sometimes there are slip-ups, but they usually pass by. What does not seem to go away is the manner in which Facebook tries to influence how I use the application in terms of the suggestions that are constantly being made. And that I guess is at the heart of the problem with Facebook and the browser environment in general. These applications are constantly harvesting information to better inform the intrusive advertising and who knows what else.

Of course everyone is trying to tidy up their act now post the Cambridge Analytica scandal. While preparing this blog I got to read Apple's announcement that it will be improving the Safari browser's behaviour in this regard. I guess I could go on, but would rather spare you and myself that anguish save to mention two things in closing.

The first is that my cell phone experience runs a close second to the problem I have been alluding to here. Not only is the cell phone contract provider, in my case Vodacom, trying to capture me, the cell phone manufacturer is in on the act as well. My most recent cell phone is a Samsung Galaxy S9 which is determined to get me to use Samsung's "Google" equivalent namely, Bixby. Initially one could not silence Bixby, but ultimately Samsung bowed to the pressure. What they could not fix was the idiotic positioning of the Bixby Button. At least one can now disable it. Putting the finger print recognition pad next to the camera lens was also not a good idea, but one I am able to live with.

The second point I need to make in closing is that this is in no way meant to be a plug for WhatsApp or Facebook, nor is it a condemnation of any other alternative to these applications. All it is is a personal examination of my own use of these applications and an admission that despite the problems they may present, they have greatly enriched my recent (10 years) life experience, and for that I am grateful.

Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy a bicycle.

If you have any comments, corrections, suggestions or plain criticism, I would appreciate it if you would communicate the same to me.

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