The good and ugly side of WhatsApp

A friend lost his pet through food poisoning while away on a foreign assignment. He regarded the pet as a very close ally for reasons best known to himself. It was a German Shepherd. A dog, to be precise.

“Following the pet’s death, the man decided to form a group or rather he was ill-advised to do so and rope some of us in with no prior consultation or notification.

“The purpose of this group was to raise cash for a grand send-off of his pet and party to ‘celebrate’ its life. It was such a big deal for him that we all were required to pledge specific amounts we would donate for what he thought was a very noble cause. There was a dress code too. It was more of a dictatorial kind of platform and it was as if each of us had to prove our friendship through this cause and all.”

This is how Aggie (she does not want to use her real name for the sake of the friendship) describes a harrowing experience she went through in a WhatsApp group.

WHATSAPP GROUP

This invention is making all the waves because of the way it brings people together for a shared cause.

There seems to be a group for anything and everything under the sun. There are groups for, say, weddings, funerals and other specific interests.

You will find one on the estate security and another for lovers of a certain make of car. Still, there will be that group for health freaks and another for pet owners.

The religious folk have not been left behind either. We have many Bible study groups on WhatsApp. Pastors and other religious leaders use the application to reach their flock.

Colleagues at the workplace have many such groups for keeping tabs on work and their general wellbeing.

1 BILLION

According to information on its website, the firm behind the app says WhatsApp is a pun on the words “What’s Up”.

“More than 1 billion people in over 180 countries use WhatsApp to stay in touch with friends and family, any time and anywhere. WhatsApp is free and offers simple, secure, reliable messaging and calling, available on phones all over the world,” says the company.

It is no secret that the application, which also comes with a free phone service in places where Wi-Fi is available, has revolutionised how the world communicates.

However, talking to the users, it is obvious that WhatsApp has the good and the ugly sides to it.

Mr Stephen Odhiambo said: “Some (groups) are good and the intentions noble. I have actually created one or two for some friends in need, for example, for raising funds for funerals and paying hospital bills.”

RAISING MONEY

Journalist Benjamin Ouma agrees. “Recently, in our estate security group, a neighbour alerted us around 4am that she had spotted a burglar jumping over a wall and there was no security officer in the vicinity to call. Quick intervention by those who were awake saw the burglar forced to flee for his life, and nothing was stolen.

“I have also been in several funeral ones, raising money. Currently, I am in one with my Busia journalist colleagues, and we have raised cash several times whenever one of us loses a loved one. At the moment, we are raising cash for the treatment of the wife of one of us,” he said.

However, a number of individuals interviewed said there are people who break all manner of decorum when it comes to WhatsApp. Many Kenyans still remember the story of a brother Ocholla who wrongly sent a randy message to his Bible study WhatsApp group, instead of his “lover”.

Then there are individuals who will wake up and add you to a group without your consent and will start a lifelong feud with you if you dare pull out.

MISUSE

Dr Njoki E. Maina of the University of Nairobi said she has been in groups that raised funds for funeral expenses, incorporating people from all parts of the world.

“WhatsApp has also been misused for what I would term meaningless agendas such as organising personal birthdays! I guess it is a nifty tool for communication but can also be misused.”

Aggie said of the dog funeral WhatsApp group: “Anyone who tried to question anything was promptly removed from the group. There was no room to express oneself but to flow with the group’s regulations. It was terrible. It was mandatory for you to participate as long as you were added to the group.”

She went on: “To most of us, it was just a dog, but to the group administrator, it was such a big deal and he, therefore, expected much from his friends in terms of complying with his reasoning and arrangements in a bid to accord his pet a befitting send-off.”

ABUSE PRIVACY

Ms Betty Nyongesa said sometimes creators of these groups abuse people’s privacy.

“Some people you have not met or spoken to for 32 months suddenly add you to a WhatsApp group at, say, 11pm, without consulting you first. You are supposed to see the profile picture of the group to get the gist of the matter, then the messages you find are from those who have sent something or a message urging you to send your mchango (contribution) to a certain number.

“In between, there are “master forwarders”, who keep forwarding photos and rumours from other groups. The ones for weddings are crazy. A wedding slated for December has the couple opening the page in February,” she said.

From the individuals interviewed, it appears WhatsApp groups for weddings are the most misused. People add others’ names without asking for their consent. Then they go ahead and fix the amount each member of the group must give.

There was this outrageous incident when a bride-to-be who was the treasurer of a WhatsApp group withdrew Sh40,000 to buy new frames for her glasses to ensure the colour would match her wedding gown.

All in all, WhatsApp is a new innovation that will affect our lives for a long time to come and we just need to learn how to live with its downsides.

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