About 2 weeks ago I uninstalled WhatsApp from my phone. This decision was many weeks into the making. Below, I will attempt to distill my experience and some insights I gained during this exercise. Whatever I have written below is completely based on my experience and even though I have done some research, I am far from being authoritative on this topic. That said, if I am wrong then please reach out and help me understand this better.
I have tried my best to group the content under appropriate headers which are somewhat related. This is long read BTW.
The urgency of Instant Messaging
WhatsApp is what we call an Instant Messaging application. The idea being that you can reach anyone, anywhere instantly.
The key word here is the "instant" part, and there is very specific set of features that these apps use to guide its users into that "instant" mindset. After all, it's in the apps best interest to keep the user on the app for the maximum amount of time. The use of "Last seen", "online/typing", read receipts etc all work together to create an environment where there is an innate sense of urgency.
I would expect instant replies to my messages. This got too weird too fast. There would be times when I would check the online/typing status and get angry (unreasonably so) if someone was online but not replying.
Notice how self-centered and negative this line of thinking is for it completely ignores the fact that the other person is a human being who has some work other than replying to my messages and instead focuses only on, "they got my message (double ticks), they saw my message (the ticks are blue), they are online (it shows online), but they are not replying for whatever reason."
Moreover this is not how a real human conversation works. In my opinion emails and IRC have done a much better job of simulating human communication in the digital form. With emails there is no expectation of instant replies and with IRC you are part of the conversation as long as you are signed-in to the channel (chat room).
The human-ness of communication
Communication is a very human phenomenon (not only limited to humans, but in this context we are focusing on communication between humans), however communicating via Instant Messaging reduces the experience of communication to just some exchange of text messages and maybe some emojis. Human communication isn't that shallow.
When we talk with someone face-to-face or via a phone call it's not just the normal exchange of words, but at the same time there are multiple other cues (for lack of a better word) that are communicated and interpreted.
Cues like, how was the sentence spoken, was it too fast or too slow, how did they sound, which syllable did they stress on, how was their expression, body language, what were they doing with their feet, their hands, was there eye-contact, etc etc. All of this is missing from IM.
The lack of these cues increases the ambiguity in a conversation which makes it incredibly hard for me as an individual to judge the tone of the conversation. I've been told in various ways that I ask a lot of questions precisely because I need to ask a lot of questions to judge the tone of the conversation. This also includes multiple hours of agony thinking "Did they mean it like this or like that ?" etc etc. Also, its weird that some people (read. most of them) do not really reply to all the questions you ask in a big message.
Personally, I enjoy (rather; started to enjoy) the weird laughter, the "umms" and the "hmms", the random hand movements etc etc that we get to experience in a real conversation.
Over the internet it is much easier to be a completely different version of yourself. A lot of communication is context and since that is essentially absent from instant messaging, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation on both the sending and the receiving end.
Furthermore, since the lack of human-ness also acts as a shield since you don't have to deal with the actual human. So you can say anything you want without facing the full consequences of it. This makes it very easy to say certain things both good and bad. This leads to things like firing someone via an email, or breaking up with someone via a text.
I've experienced that it's much easier to offer a incredibly non-constructive criticism over the internet (i.e. something that does not do the other person any good but makes them feel bad), while its also incredibly easy to compliment someone or to say something encouraging to someone over the internet. Try saying "I believe in you" to someone face-to-face. Its terrifying, but at the same time its much more rewarding if you can actually do it.
My attention span
I'm always online. It's an integral part of my work, my studies etc etc. This means that I am also very very over-stimulated, all the time.
A large part of my work necessitates that I be able to context switch between different tasks of varying complexity very quickly, so being able to switch laser focus from one task to another for a small amount of time and then again switch back is vital. At work, at any point of time I generally work on a long term agenda (like weekly work-goal), some short term critical bug-fixes, older code cleanup (cause there is always a better way to do stuff), personal side-projects (like this blog) and studying. Apart from this I have at least three communication applications open at the same time and I am interacting with at least 4 groups on a regular basis (work group, meetup group, NGO etc etc).
Also "work" is not like a continuous 9 hour marathon. Most of my work is some random hours distributed over multiple smaller spikes throughout the day. (because hey, the database backup takes a long time and a problem is a problem regardless of whether its a work problem or a non-work problem).
What this means is that I have a really hard time trying to focus on important things that are not too important. Things like reading a considerably boring section of an otherwise interesting paper, or a decently boring part of a book or more importantly sitting down to study, but not actually studying because I get distracted too easily and the material I am studying is somewhat more difficult. Things have become so bad that I find it difficult to sit through an entire movie without either skipping the "slow" parts or speeding the movie up. I find YouTube videos too slow at the "normal" pace and hence I speed it up to 1.75x now. I started with 1.25x about 3 months ago.
Things aren't that bad though. I find that I am able to focus only when the problem at hand is too critical or too challenging (not difficult) or when it is something that I am very interested in. Anything less that and my mind starts to wander. Needless to say all this is extremely difficult for me to admit and hence I really think I should do something actively to fix it.
It's a mess in my head and I need to fix it. Removing WhatsApp and other non-critical stuff for two weeks kind of reduced the amount of stimulus I had on a daily basis. From the first day itself there was a sense of emptiness which was really amazing.
The fragility and plasticity of human communication
Human communication has always been very fragile. Fragile in a sense that, once a conversation between two people are over it exists only in the minds of the participants which in the long term can cause the memory of that conversation to morph into something else entirely so much so that different participants have completely different recollections of the same conversation. Memory is plastic after-all (and there is a lot of research to prove this)
This also means that people forget things that they talked about from time to time and this is normal. The brain does a regular clean-up job when we sleep deleting the less important stuff while stashing the more important stuff (watch Inside Out). For me personally I tend to remember some weird details and whatnot.
Initially this used to be very annoying but over time I realized that this is a very important feature of human communication. This forget-able-ness is the reason why it feels so good when a very old friend brings up a very old topic etc etc.
With instant messaging everything is permanent since everything is recorded. There is no ambiguity as to what was said, but at the same time there is no context information also. This can be weird especially if you re-read old messages without any context whatsoever. Again, in my opinion this is not how human communication is supposed to be. (Watch Black Mirror S1E3 - The Entire History of You).
Also, when people forget conversations, it's actually fun because you get to have the same conversations again with them.
I have always been obsessed with the idea of being independent of all (well certain) forms of attachment and with the idea of less; less things, less needs etc etc and so far it has been a somewhat interesting journey trying to carve a lifestyle that fits those goals.
I have always played with the idea of giving up all forms of instant messaging, but that idea seemed too much in a way, particularly because I am too much dependent of these applications and I kept thinking that it would be too difficult; that life would be too tough without them.
To my utter surprise, nothing could be further from the truth. I stopped "missing" WhatsApp from the moment I uninstalled it from my phone and to be honest, its been rather an amazing experience so far. I have a lot of time now.
It was not easy though. There are certain people that I enjoy talking to, who are available only on WhatsApp and since I moved around a bit I have a lot of remote friends, so WhatsApp (or any IM application) is necessary, which is one of the reasons I will be installing it back again. But yes! it was a good change.
That said, a lot of international collaborations work and function as they do precisely because of these applications and the kind of closeness they enable. So it would be unfair to say that these applications are all "bad". I would speculate that the only "bad" thing is that when these applications form a rather large part of your daily communication.
Letting go of Reddit was much easier.
Notes to self
I called up a bunch of people and that was amazing. Should do that more often.
I did not miss WhatsApp as much as I thought I would.
And most importantly, there are certain people with whom the experience on instant messaging and real life conversations is phenomenal and almost indistinguishable. My best guess would be that these people experience IMs the same way I do (to some extent) and hence our conversations are somewhat better.
Finally, Its all in the head. Most of the things you think you need; you don't!!
I hope this makes sense.