WhatsApp purchase: Teens fleeing Facebook can run, but can't hide

Facebook's purchase of the mobile chat application WhatsApp for $19 billion drops another breadcrumb for parents trying to track their kids online. 

Dado Ruvic/Reuters
Facebook Inc. will buy fast-growing mobile-messaging start-up WhatsApp for $19 billion in cash and stock in a landmark deal that places the world's largest social network closer to the heart of mobile communications and may bring younger users into the fold. A Whatsapp App logo is seen behind a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone that is logged on to Facebook in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, Feb. 20.

Parents can thank Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp for $19 billion for dropping breadcrumbs for them to follow to find out where their kids might be, potentially leading to the undoing of the messaging application itself. 

Like many savvy parents, I tend to track tech and gaming news alerts on my smart phone in order to get a feel for what my kids might be into next.

Last year when Facebook admitted that younger users were fleeing to smart phone messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and KakaoTalk, I began to check them out. Now I know which one to keep on my phone thanks to the media hoopla of Facebook’s whopping big buy.

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees kids fleeing his platform because parents are embarrassing them – spamming their walls with inspirational quotes, tagging them in photos they don’t want their friends to see – I’m thinking about the fickle nature of teens as a reason to not spend $19 billion on an application.

After all, this is a demographic group known for its short attention span.

Mr. Zuckerberg may have just bought himself a white elephant, because having been a teen doesn’t mean you understand them the way parents do.

According to ABC News, Zuckerberg famously wrote in an open letter to users in Feb. 2012, “By giving people the power to share, we're making the world more transparent.”

Teens don’t like things to be transparent – they prefer to be sans-parent, as far away from their parents as possible, especially online.

Parents, on the other hand, adore transparency, therefore, I just preemptively installed WhatsApp on my smart phone as soon as I heard about kids leaving Facebook.

I found that many of the parents I know were already on it because they’d followed their kids there or were doing the same thing I was.

Having messaged fellow parents this morning via the new app, I can say we love the feature that tells you when the person you are messaging was last on the app and how they feel. It helps us keep track of the kids.

Something else to consider is that despite the promise made by WhatsApp co-founder and chief executive Jan Koum that nothing would change when WhatsApp becomes part of the Facebook empire, users are already dumping the app at the news of the buyout, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Apparently, many users balk at the long shadow cast by Facebook’s privacy issues, ads, and the “my way or the highway” changes it randomly makes to their privacy and user settings, according to the LA Times.

Parents know that teens don’t like being told they have no options when it comes to major changes.

In 2011, Facebook introduced its Timeline feature with the premise of: if you don’t like it that’s just tough because we will switch your profile to it anyway.

After that, it was a series of design modifications on everything from chat to news feeds that have driven my teens mad with frustration.

Every teen I know, from my sons to their friends, began looking for the exit because they didn’t like having their space invaded by Facebook barging into their rooms and redecorating their walls.

“It’s like if you just came in and painted my room some disgusting color while I was at school,” my son Avery, 15, told me when big changes began on Facebook. “Oh and please stop tagging me in photos! Geez.”

Kids get told what to do by everyone from parents to teachers, coaches, and lunch ladies in hair nets. So when they get online they want to have control of their environments.

With kids, once burned is twice shy.

On the upside, it does give parents yet another teachable moment in fun math.

If one Instagram costs $1 billion, how many Instagrams could Facebook have bought for $19 billion?

Parents tend to think a lot about value for money and so does the online community which has poked a lot of fun at Facebook’s spending spree by suggesting better buys.

Facebook could have bought one-third of the Sochi Olympics for what it intends to pay for WhatsApp, according to Gizmodo.

According to the Boston Globe, an average training cost for an Olympic athlete runs around $50,000 a year. So Facebook could fund roughly 380,000 American athletes for a year. 

I would like to see Zuckerberg’s parents post on his wall or, better yet, send him a quick note via WhatsApp to suggest he get more for his money by investing in something that pays the kind of dividends money can’t buy.

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