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8 April 2023

 We are all prisoners of WhatsApp

There’s something terrifying and oppressive about the idea that off-hand comments could be recorded forever.

By Jonn Elledge

Some weeks ago, I found myself in the faintly uncanny position of experiencing a twinge of sympathy for Matt Hancock. OK, the man was a chancer of limited administrative competence who had a record of doing the most embarrassing thing possible at every turn, not least handing his entire WhatsApp history to the notorious Isabel Oakeshott and expecting her not to make hay. On the other hand, though, the entire country was now poring over his entire WhatsApp history, and who among us could honestly have expected to emerge unscathed from that? “If someone leaked my message history,” one friend said, “I would quite simply die.”

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there were text messages and Facebook groups and internet forums and DM chats. Now, to a greater or lesser extent, WhatsApp has replaced the lot. I talk to my partner there. I pitch to my editors there. One minute I’m using it to find out what the other residents of my building are furious about this week; the next, to organise dinner with some friends. It’s the app that ate everything.

Including, inevitably, professional communications, and that is where the trouble starts. WhatsApp combines the immediacy of the water-cooler chat, with the permanent record of the minuted meeting, and this is quite obviously a recipe for disaster. It’s easy, even natural, to use it for the kind of casual chat once reserved for face-to-face communications. The problem is they’re then preserved forever. 

This is not the first time the internet has offered us a version of this, but it is the most difficult to navigate. Email, too, offers a dangerous combination of the immediacy of speech and the permanency of a letter; but at least with email you need to know someone well or be deep into a chat before your responses take the form of snarky one-liners. With Slack, you may get there quicker, but it is explicitly a professional communications tool. The tone may resemble speech, but you never forget you are at work.

The ubiquity of WhatsApp, though, means that you can. It’s thus easier for those things – minor criticisms, bitchy comments, off-colour jokes – that surely most of us make in the course of a day, to be inadvertently recorded forever. I’m sure, were your chat history to leak, it wouldn’t do the kind of career-ending reputational damage that it’s done to the former health secretary. But are you confident there is nothing in there that would upset a friend? Or a colleague? Or someone who does not in the grand scheme of things really matter to you, but who you’d simply prefer not to offend?

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[See also: Matt Hancock is paying the price for his self-congratulatory book]

This sort of permanent record can have its upsides. There’s something wonderful about being able to flick through the early months of a relationship, say, the bit when both parties were prone to sending unprovoked essays about how wonderful and life-changing the other is, and/or what they’d like to be doing to them right now. It can be helpful, too, to check what you thought of events at the time, to prevent yourself from rewriting history. (There’s a mailing list I’ve been on for 15 years or more, whose existence has prevented me from denying the embarrassing fact that, however stupid this now seems, I genuinely once believed that Tory austerity would win the election for Ed Miliband.) 

But as Hancock has found to his cost, a permanent record of what you thought and when is not always a good thing. Worse, it reveals things clearly meant for one audience to another. The Cabinet Secretary Simon Case’s amusement at the notion of locking international travellers up in crappy hotels to me had the vibe of a joke that one tells at a funeral, the dark comment you make to relieve the tension. I could understand it. It still looks awful when published in a newspaper and presented as an official government communication. In an earlier age, these jokes would have been made in meetings, and the rest of the world would never have heard them. 

Even in the personal sphere, there’s something terrifying and oppressive about the idea that off-hand comments could be recorded forever. WhatsApp preserves not just moments of romance and joy but of bitterness and conflict, too, and there’s something unnerving about having a box in your pocket containing a record of all the worst rows you’ve ever had. Perhaps it would be healthier to delete the lot. Once upon a time, our memories were enough. 

In “Be Right Back”, an episode of Black Mirror broadcast in 2013, an enterprising tech company uses its message history to provide ever-more realistic simulacra of a woman’s dead boyfriend. The more real it becomes, though, the more terrifying it is, too. We are all, even Matt Hancock, more than just the sum of the stupid things we once wrote on the internet. Our message history was never meant to live forever.

[See also: What did we do to deserve Matt Hancock?]

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