United Airlines 370 finally lands on the tarmac of O’Hare International Airport with me on board, fatigued and exhausted from a 31-hour journey of flights and layovers.
I receive my first caress from a chilly breeze in the windy city – a stark juxtaposition of the intense humidity and heat I am accustomed to back in Singapore. Here I am 9353 miles from home, and excited to begin orientation at Wheaton College, what would become my second home for the next four years. As I mingle with floor mates and new friends, we exchange numbers and I shout with parting words, “WhatsApp me!”
The long drawn confusion on my new friends’ faces only reflected a horror and shock on my own that I cannot describe. This would be one of the biggest cultural shocks that I would experience in the U.S.
“If you don’t use WhatsApp, what do you use to communicate with each other?” I was in complete bewilderment and confusion.
“Um, phone texts and Facebook…” she answered me as if that were the most natural thing and I was being an absolute idiot for even asking.
Contrary to the American norm, Singaporean teenagers are the complete opposite; Instagram and Twitter are the first go-to social media apps, not Facebook. Since WhatsApp’s launch in 2009, people don’t utilise text messages anymore. WhatsApp gained huge media attention in February 2014 when Facebook bought it for $19 billion dollars; an absurd and maybe even ostentatious amount compared to the $1 billion Instagram was bought for. Mark Zuckerberg saw its value in the large usership since it is currently the most popular instant messaging app in the world. As of September 2015, WhatsApp has a user base of 900 million people.
Yet many people in the U.S. had heard little, or nearly never, about it prior to this announcement. According to statistics, approximately 5 million people use it in the U.S., a mere one-hundred and eightieth of the total user base. It is invaluable to Facebook as it is to me, beyond exploring this cultural difference that exists, i want to share how WhatsApp has shaped my relationships throughout the years.
The most defining feature about WhatsApp is that it is a free app with a user-friendly interface and is available for Android, iOS, Blackberry and Windows phones. For countries such as Singapore where texts and calls are not free and unlimited like AT&T or T-Mobile, WhatsApp is especially beneficial. According to reports, 72 percent of Singapore’s mobile Internet users use it because it has become their primary avenue to bypass the SMS and MMS charges. Since it is available for all smartphone users, there is no need to pray that friends have iMessage or Blackberry Messenger to evade the costs. Therefore, people young and old in Singapore stay connected through WhatsApp.
Additionally, as long as someone has Internet connection or Wi-Fi, they can message or call their friends, regardless of where they are in the world. They do not require cellular coverage. For me right now, this is especially useful when friends and family are scattered all around the globe; be it in Singapore, Australia, UK, South Africa, or Mexico. Yet, we can still keep in contact free of charge. The world continues to experience a paradigm shift in global citizenship and international identity, where hot pots of cultures are brought to places previously never thought of. For the international community, managing and maintaining these relationships heavily rely on chat services such as WhatsApp.
Furthermore, the fact that it works through the mobile’s mobile data or Wi-Fi also means that when connection is good, texts can be sent almost instantaneously, bringing instant messaging to a whole new level. WhatsApp therefore marries social media and messaging in a unique way as online messaging becomes almost parallel to having a normal conversation with friends in real life. With the ability to send photos and videos easily, we are able to bring up things that we have seen quickly into the conversation and carry on chatting. There is also a function that allows you to send voice notes instantly. This is useful when the linguistics and literature of the mobile world just aren’t enough to express what you have to say, it makes the chat much more personal as well since now you can actually hear what friends are saying almost in real-time. Hence, just as someone would chat for hours at end with their friend over coffee, similar chats take place online for us.
Another significant feature is the ability to create group chats, the maximum capacity goes up to 100 people, not that this happens often, but there is an option to do so. I am someone who needs to feel a sense of belonging to a group before developing one-on-one friendships. When thrown to a completely new environment, much less a foreign country, it is overwhelming making friends with people of different cultures and backgrounds. I constantly find myself wondering – where do I even begin makind friendships?
In Singapore, the first natural thing is to create a group chat. Whether it’s for people on the same floor, for people in the same class, or possibly someone in the same orientation group at camp. Sure, it may be awkward in the beginning being in a group full of strangers, but you know you have or will have shared experiences together and that forms the basis of the friendships. Like GroupMe, this ensures that everyone is in the loop when information is relayed. Be it going to an event together, or to grab a meal together, the group chat would keep everyone updated and respond to conveniently and efficiently decide on a time and place to meet. However for where I’m from, WhatsApp differs in how these informational chats morph into casual chats, most times containing nonsensical content. Gradually, as people text their “real-time” conversations, a sense of familiarity and bondage to this group that shares the common trait with you develops. As time progresses and friendships are established, it is easier to know who to invest one-on-one time with.
For all these reasons and many more, I and many others around the world love WhatsApp. It has been a pivotal instrument in my life; where some of the best conversations have taken place, and group chats in particular have made me so much closer to some of my best friends, and still be able to maintain this status as we text from opposite ends of the globe.
And as I continue to familiarize myself with cultural differences in the States, I also learn to appreciate my culture and way of life back home. It may still baffle some why WhatsApp is worth the whopping $19 billion Facebook paid for it. But to me, with all my relationships established in the past 6 years since its launch, WhatsApp is truly priceless.
Now after I give people my number, I know better and say, “Text me!”
Photo Credits: www.geeky-gadgets.com