23 July 2017 11:04:36 IST

WhatsApp’s a tricky business platform

By offering a sense of privacy, it permits a greater range of expression than Facebook

At the heart of the controversy involving a DIG seeking support for six jail staff colleagues arrested for the assault and murder of a female convict in Byculla jail (Mumbai) is the use of a social messaging group comprising senior colleagues on WhatsApp. Screenshots of the messages which went public last week demonstrate the pitfalls of using what is essentially a mode of informal and unofficial communication, for official purposes. It also reveals the gross lack of understanding of the implications of revealing different types of emotions in varied social contexts, using new social communication media, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.

Social media platforms encourage self-expression by allowing people to share their feelings. However, such communication is bound by social norms — both descriptive and injunctive. A descriptive norm is based on the perception of what people around are doing. Thus, on social media, pressing a ‘Like’ button when you see a ‘Friend’s’ post, especially one receiving multiple likes, exemplifies a descriptive norm. Injunctive norms, on the other hand, refer to the extent to which people perceive certain behaviours as appropriate or inappropriate by a given group. Such norms in social media communication imply promises of social reward or punishment. The reaction to actor Aamir Khan’s comments on Twitter regarding the rising intolerance in India would exemplify the setting in motion of injunctive norms.

The ‘Like’ bias

The presence of injunctive norms would affect the nature of emotions expressed by people on social media. Research indicates that there exists a ‘positivity bias’ with the expression of positive emotions being perceived as more appropriate compared to negative emotions which are perceived as being more socially risky. Negative emotions, which are considered more intimate, may be better expressed through more intimate off-line modes.

In this context, WhatsApp scores over other social media. It offers greater behavioural privacy in its settings and an implicit notion of a private platform, aimed at facilitating interaction with closer and stronger ties. It also provides users with the flexibility to use various types of content — text, visual and audiovisual, unlike Twitter. WhatsApp is also more amenable to sharing both negative and positive emotions, invoking relatively lower injunctive norms, compared to both Facebook and Twitter.

However, the feature of connecting people linked by common ties — whether by school, college, caste and community, alumnus status, or work place — through ‘WhatsApp groups’ has altered the nature of this platform.

WhatsApp groups represent the transformation of WhatsApp from a private platform to a quasi-private platform. Behaviourally, the manner in which the human mind processes and perceives communication in closed groups on WhatsApp is likely to be very different from similar communication on Facebook and Twitter. Such communication is also likely to be perceived differently from communication through official channels such as email.

Seemingly safe

In particular, in business settings, WhatsApp groups, linking people at work, give the impression of a safety net, connecting people who are related through strong work ties in a group. The quasi-private nature of the platform thus encourages people bound by weak ties to behave like those bound by strong ones. More importantly, there is a tendency for the sender of the message to treat the recipients as one homogeneous unit.

Moreover, while such groups at work seem to offer the advantage of breaking hierarchy, they may also prompt executives to communicate with seniors in a manner that may be seen as too free in other settings. Being more open in the expression of both positive and negative emotions alters the very nature of the communication, which no longer remains intimate on a private platform, between close friends or family. Organisations run the risk of looser injunctive norms-bound communication among members. There is a further risk of this being represented as ‘official communication’ by disgruntled employees, not to mention the loss of secrecy, since WhatsApp currently does not offer enterprise data protection.

It is true that several companies in India have strict social media policy guidelines for their employees. However, companies may have little control over informal WhatsApp groups formed at the workplace. As the case of the DIG demonstrates, such groups are not uncommon. Again, posting a private message on an official group on a social media platform has larger ramifications. Companies should sensitise employees to the downside risks of using this fast-growing app.

(The writer is a professor of economics at SP Jain Institute of Management & Research (Mumbai). The views are personal. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)