WhatsApp Messenger was launched in Kenya about a decade ago, revolutionising connectedness and communication. Phone call and SMS charges were still relatively high back then, so an alternative that offered these services for “free” (save for data) was welcomed with both hands.
Locally, it took Kenyan youth by storm and was quickly taken up as the preferred messenger of choice. It was fast to gain traction because of its novelty — it enabled people to share pictures and videos in addition to allowing local and international calls to be made using only data.
Before WhatsApp, people mainly connected to one another through Facebook, which allowed people to share media but only on the social media’s platform.
Years after the frenzy and excitement of its introduction simmered down, WhatsApp’s usefulness remains integral to most people’s everyday life.
It is still the platform of choice for people seeking to stay connected in ways never imagined before. Now more than ever, even old friendships which would have ideally been lost as was the case in the past are preserved.
WhatsApp has breached geographical barriers making it possible for people who were in the same class in primary, high school and university decades ago to reconnect and chat as much as they want despite being thousands of miles apart.
The platform has also given people an ideal platform to come together to form various groups for worthy causes. Investment groups such as chamas have ridden the app’s back to thrive. It has also enabled professionals to easily share experiences and ideas.
“It was very difficult for all of us to agree on a time and place to meet for our chama, so we would cancel meetings but now our WhatsApp group has greatly eased the burden,” Peggy Muthoni told Digital magazine.
It is common for WhatsApp groups to be formed to support one cause or another. But perhaps the most widespread use of the app in Kenya is as an avenue for mobilising resources during crises.
Harambees, where people come together to fund raise for some needy individuals or groups, have always been very popular in Kenya even before the app was invented. However, in the wake of the advent of WhatsApp, the physical and financial strain of organising such functions is lessened since now people easily raise funds from the comfort of their homes.
However, it is in fundraising that the good and the bad of WhatsApp co-exist. While harambee is one of the best channels to help the needy meet pressing financial woes — such as paying school fees or meeting medical costs — many times this Kenyan spirit of sharing the burden of everyday life has been misused. WhatsApp, more than any other patform, has aggravated the ugly side of this spirit.
Some people take advantage of the generosity of Kenyans and the convenience of the social media platform to fake a financial crisis. With WhatsApp, it is easy to shout fire, even when you are not in danger, and the world instantly comes to your rescue. Apparently connectivity has created room for mischief makers and even fraudsters to thrive.
Also, a slight financial problem is enough reason to rush to WhatsApp group with a begging bowl.
“Every other day I am put in a group formed for various reasons such as to fundraise for baby showers, weddings, funerals and graduations,” Ms Muthoni says, adding that she is never consulted before her name is added.
Many Kenyans share in Ms Muthon’s frustrations. It has become commonplace to find yourself added into groups, especially for fund raising, without any one bothering to seek your approval.
“I hate those useless groups you’re put in without being asked. Sometimes you open the app and find 200 notifications from complete strangers,” Caroline Sakana says.
This is a concern that has been raised by many Kenyans who claim that their privacy is repeatedly intruded every other day through these ubiquitous groups.
This is just an example of the bad or ugly side of social media platforms, which largely remain a free-for-all realm with feeble regulatory framework if any.
In the past there were directives ordering group administrators (admins) to be held accountable for acts planned for and conversations held in the groups they are in charge of. This is because apart of coming together for common good, WhatsApp groups have been used to plan for and perpetrate illegalities.
At present, enforcement of laws governing the cyber space in Kenya is under discussion. Before any solid rules are hatched, cyber space remains a murky, unchartered territory.