Some might call him ungrateful. Brian Acton, co-founder of the popular encrypted messaging app WhatsApp, is turning against the company that made him rich: Facebook.
In 2009, Acton, along with Jan Koum, created WhatsApp, a messaging application which relies on Wi-Fi, allows users to signal whether or not they are available, and touts its security (this last proposition has been much debated but this column in Wired is convincing in its agreement). At first ignored—”no one used it,” Koum told CNBC—the app eventually gained over 400 million users globally by 2014, the year Facebook came calling.
The social media giant purchased the app later that year for $16b and stock, placing Acton’s net worth at somewhere around $6.5b.
At the time, questions abound as to whether the app—which in 2012 had written a blog post entitled Why we don’t sell ads warning that “when advertising is involved you the user are the product”—would ditch its ad-free attitude under Zuckerberg’s leadership. Perhaps naively, Kuom told The Verge that they were “more focused on growing how many people were using the app over how money will be made off it.”
Four years later, it appears Kuom’s business partner has soured on the deal. At 7PM last evening, Acton sent out this ominous tweet:
It is time. #deletefacebook
— Brian Acton (@brianacton) March 20, 2018
Along with the support of likeminded privacy-heads, Acton received pushback, with commenters comparing his position to someone who sells their tobacco to JR Reynolds, only to later decry the effects of smoking. Even among fans of the #deletefacebook “movement,” a question remained: What’s the alternative?
Though Acton doesn’t explicitly engage the possibility of alternatives to Facebook, his investing activity may signal where he sees digital communications heading. Just last month, he invested $50m in Signal, the secure, end-to-end encrypted messaging app. If this feels like deja vu, it is: Signal and WhatsApp are almost identical in their use.
It’s how they differ, however, that may give us a glimpse into what would-be-Facebook-destroyers have in mind for an alternative platform.
As a consequence of its focus on privacy, Signal packs fewer features (“The simpler it is, the easier it is to keep your data private and secure“). With the availability of typing indicators, read receipts, location sharing, voice memos and GIFS, WhatsApp appears like a normal messaging service. Signal, on the other hand, makes known to users it is a private pathway first, fun-chat-app second.
Unsurprisingly, this lack of accessories has hindered Signal’s growth which, lags far behind WhatsApp’s 1b+ users. As one reviewer on Wired notes, it “isn’t going to win a lot of fans among those who’ve grown used to the more novel features inside their chat apps.”
Nonetheless, this writer urges we—our generation?—make the move to Signal, despite its lack of flash. And perhaps this is what the alternative to Facebook will ultimately be: a more private, user-centric platform which, due to its focus on maximizing user control over profit, will lack many of the bells and whistles of its venture capital funded brethren. The question is if this is a trade-off we’re willing to make.