WhatsApp With That?

In my post on smartphone fixes I touched upon turning off read receipts and presence indication in messaging apps. Here’s how to apply that to WhatsApp and some other tips too.

WhatsApp has many faults, not least of which is being owned by a corporation with dubious ethics. The herd of senior ex-WhatsApp staff leaving Facebook could be a symptom of this, or it could simply be an artefact of vesting.

Despite its problems, WhatsApp is ubiquitous, has a huge network effect and the messages are (in principle) end-to-end encrypted. How can you get the best out of it while avoiding some of the downsides?

I Am Not A Number

While phone numbers are not a great way to authenticate a user, they are very convenient and WhatsApp uses them to prove that you’re you. You may wish to set up a two-step verification PIN in the settings if you switch numbers to avoid a number hijacking.

Some other settings you might want to change from the defaults are:

  • media auto-download
  • read receipts
  • presence indication
  • notifications for chatty groups (mute)

At an OS level you can also disable access to the microphone and camera if you don’t use these features.

Power User Tips

Messages are end-to-end encrypted using the Signal Protocol. You can switch on indications when someone’s keys change, for example when they get a new phone.

Although messages are encrypted, any links use a Facebook service to get more information and a preview of the site. These data can then be used to target advertising at you.

Speaking of links, there is a custom hyperlink URL schema you can use to send messages. This is whatsapp://send?text={message} (e.g. whatsapp://send?text=Hi). I made use of this on my live departure boards and in InstaBail.

Very Strong

You can use a subset of markdown inside messages to emphasise, strengthen or strikethrough text with the following syntax: _emphasise_, **strengthen** or ~~strikethrough~~. You’ll get a preview in the message box when you get it right.

There is a desktop web app if you want to use a keyboard or copy and paste from your computer. However, the mobile app requires camera access to read a QR code from it.

Alternatives

It may be wise (if difficult) to encourage your social network to use additional messaging apps, such as Signal or Riot, while still using WhatsApp. It’s always best to have multiple options for communication and not rely on a proprietary service for all of your needs.

For example, WhatsApp is very popular with businesses in Asia (much more than in the UK). It’s almost the primary means of communication in some cases. However, I’d be cautious of trusting key communication to a company with a history of making you pay once the users have been lured in.

Using established open standards, such as a website and email may be a safer long-term bet than closed systems with a gatekeeper. It’s good to always have a backup.

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