The Trouble with WhatsApp

By the time this blog post reaches you, it’ll have been several hours since I finished writing this article. In a world where so much of what we do is instant, from long-distance communication to microwaveable dinners, it’s both painful and exhilarating to be stuck on what seems like a desert island in the wavestorm. Perhaps even a little rebellious, too. So, in a way, quite a bit like sex. But what do I know?

I’m currently living in a very comfortable two-bedroom flat on the edge of town, just a three minute walk from school and a seven minute walk to the nearest supermarket. During the week I share it with a flatmate some ten years older than me who returns home to his family every weekend, leaving the flat all to me if I’m not traveling. That’s just to give you some background detail. We agreed early on that there wasn’t much point in getting internet for the flat, despite his having access to a discounted deal, as we have no mainline phone, but chiefly because there’s free internet whenever we want it at school.

That means one thing: I live under a communication curfew. When school finally shuts its doors at half past nine, I’m off the grid until the following morning.

To my knowledge there are two other WiFi access points in town, if you don’t count all the cafés and bars: there’s the hotspot in the town park, and the WiFi service operated by the town’s youth hostel. I’ve been leeching off both for the last month, but neither are reliable. The park is a very hit-and-miss affair; sometimes there’s WiFi, sometimes there isn’t. Usually, there isn’t. The albergue is normally operational, but it’s a longer walk, and you have to be inside the front door to get a good signal, and that just looks plain suspicious. Which it is. I only play that card these days if I’m out of all other options and really need to contact somebody.

The crux of the matter is that I’m leading a largely internet-free existence. I’m not fully weaned of the system by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve taken the first few steps.

For one thing, YouTube no longer dominates my spare time the way it used to. I haven’t even accessed YouTube since I left England some four weeks ago. Nor do I have the option to spend hours trawling Facebook for whatever reason I used to do so. And since nobody out here ever uses SMS – this is a world where WhatsApp has well and truly taken over – my contact with the outside world is limited to an average of an hour a day: which, when you think about it, is still more than what you need. In an hour you can send and reply to a few messages, check your emails, Google a query that might have been troubling you and still have time to check the news. Anything more than that is unnecessary.

The trouble, as I’ve already mentioned, is WhatsApp. The whole world seems to turn on it, and Spain in particular has taken a really obsessive shine to it. All communication happens through WhatsApp. ‘Join our WhatsApp group’, ‘envíame una WhatsApp’, ‘don’t bother with Facebook, I haven’t checked mine in weeks, message me on WhatsApp’… I hear the same lines every day, unfailingly echoed word for word, like quotes from a cult film. It seems to be the only way people keep in touch, both personally and professionally. Even my colleagues among the staff have their own WhatsApp group, which swamps me with some three hundred new messages each time I’m back in wireless range. I asked a class to guess how many messages they send a day – upon investigation, every single one has both a smartphone and WhatsApp – and got the answer five hundred. As an absolute minimum.

I don’t know whether it’s the same in England, because I never could get WhatsApp on my old phone, so I never bothered. It’s an undercurrent I’ve done without thus far. And I don’t know whether, like Facebook, eBooks and Instagram, I’ll get sucked into the mire like everyone else in time, but I hope not. Face-to-face conversation is so much more worthwhile, worth waiting for. Surely there’s no need to go on talking into the small hours, firing round after round of thumbs-up, smileys, voice clips and the rest of the arsenal? I’m a very chatty bean when I want to be, but only if I’ve anything worth saying – small talk is something I’ve never really mastered, let alone understood – and anything worth saying is worth saying face-to-face. Cue Thumper: ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all’.

The hypocrisy of my argument is this blog, of course. But as I said before, these posts are usually conversations with myself more than informative insights – as well as being my university job.

I thought I’d broach the subject because I had a particularly fulfilling debate with my Seniors class on this and other subjects last week. I had them explain to me the Spanish attitude to the online world and their stance on the blight of WhatsApp. They’re all well and truly connected, but they were at least able to recognize the foolishness of it. A few observations from my students, for the record:

  • Facebook is for older people. (This is notable because that’s how it was, once upon a time, in the UK, before it became a social staple for everybody from eleven and up.)
  • Instagram is only for artistic photos, not for food. (Preach.)
  • Checking in should be solely a holiday feature, if you ever use it.
  • WhatsApp is a problem, but it’s unavoidable – and cheaper than SMS.

In my internet-free evenings, I’m getting a lot more done than I used to. I’m reading more. I’m writing more. I’m even watching the odd film on TV. The news suddenly means a lot more to me, now that I’m not getting it ticker-tape-style every second. And the conversations I have with the people I live and work with on a daily basis are so much more entertaining for the silence between each encounter. News is fresh and comes in a wave, and I enjoy that. It’s a hermit life, but I’ve always been rather partial to that kind of existence.

Please don’t take this as a holier-than-thou condemnation of the rest of the world. I’m the one at fault, the Luddite, the Philistine; as usual, it’s probably yet another case of ‘it’s not the rest of the world, it’s you’. (More’s the fool I am for having left my weekly shop to a Sunday, when everywhere is shut… Tch. Catholic countries. Looks like lentils and rice for dinner once again…) What it is is a welcome break from the year abroad whines and shines that we’re all bombarding you with right now, though you might read it as a wake-up call to myself and others as well, before we’re all swamped by the touch-talk phenomenon of the twenty-first century… if you’re so inclined.

If you made it all the way to the end of this tirade, all I can say is I admire your stamina, and thank you for your patience – I had quite a lot to get off my chest! I’ll leave the musing and tell you all about this past weekend’s adventures as soon as I find a way of getting my photos off my old SLR. In the meantime, I’ll reward your endurance by giving you a final insight into something sweeter.

This coming weekend I’m finally returning to my old hometown of Olvera, some nine years after I left for England for good. I can’t wait to see my old friends again, as I was still a child when last I saw them, but there’s one in particular I’d dearly like to see. She was a good friend, and one of the only ones I haven’t yet got back in touch with, for whatever reason. But I’m saving all nine years of stories for when I see her, like something out of the fairy tales I spend my life writing. It’s childish, foolish and more than a little bit wet, but it’s a damned sight more real than a buzz in your pocket. That is the reality of it, and that’s this year’s big project: breaking free. BB x

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