The rise of unintentional messaging apps: From Instagram to GPay, how almost every app is becoming a chat app now

Riya Ramu credits GPay for saving her friendship. “Recently, I had blocked a friend across social media and messaging apps over some differences,” says the marketing professional from Mumbai. Unable to approach Ramu via any other digital platform, her friend finally reached out to her on the Google-owned mobile payments app, asking to reconcile. GPay isn’t typically seen as a communication tool so it hadn’t occurred to Ramu to block her friend there as well. She was amused by her friend’s ingenuity and moved by their effort to reconnect.


On another occasion, she used GPay’s chat interface to communicate with a fellow passenger she had met on a flight. “I had lost my wallet in the airport and they lent me some cash, which I promptly returned via the app.” Later, she messaged them on GPay to share that the airport authorities had found her wallet. Who would have thought that an app focused on transactions could mend and forge human connections?

Besides using GPay as an unintentional chat app, Ramu also uses Pinterest’s messaging feature to share and discuss images she likes on the visual bookmarking site. “Wherever there is shareable content, having a messaging interface helps to have seamless conversations without leaving the platform,” she says.

WhatsApp is the undisputed leader of messaging apps, with over 535 million monthly active users in India, and more than 2.7 billion worldwide. Lately, though, instead of relying on WhatsApp alone, people are using all kinds of apps that have a chatting interface for some form of communication, even though that’s not the platform’s primary offering. This trend signifies a shift from calling to texting culture, compelling internet platforms and brands to prioritise enhancing their messaging interfaces, all the while raising questions on the future of digital messaging.

The shift has happened partly because WhatsApp has stopped being the perfect messaging app it once was. Meta, its parent company, has been pushing businesses to onboard its ad solutions platform, WhatsApp Business, to monetise the app that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg bought for $19 billion in 2014.In Q1 2023, paid messaging [by businesses] on WhatsApp grew by 40% quarter-on-quarter, Zuckerberg said in an earnings call in April. By June, WhatsApp Business reached 200 million monthly active users worldwide. In India, “businesses send 6 to 60 lakh messages to users in a day,” says an executive at an analytical company that tracks the platform’s business performance. “Some international companies have started sending OTPs (one-time-passwords) on WhatsApp as well, as it costs them one-third the price of sending OTPs via SMSes,” says the executive quoted above who wishes to remain anonymous.

WhatsApp’s usage has fallen. The average time a user spends on it has g one down from 19 hours a month in 2020 to 18.6 in 2021 to 17.3 in 2022, as per global data on Verloop.io, a customer support automation platform, and analytics site datareportal.com. But they do not pin this fall on spamming messages. Verloop attributes it to“mobile usage patterns moderating following the abrupt surge seen during the pandemic”.

The open rate for business messages on WhatsApp has also fallen from 94% to 83% in the last two years, says the anonymous executive at the analytics company. Open rate is the share of recipients who open a message out of the total recipients it is sent to. However, a Meta spokesperson says in an emailed response to ET that the opening rates mentioned are still “well above standards for the industry and would be considered highly successful”. “We continue to see the growth of people engaging with businesses in India. Last earnings, Zuckerberg noted that every week, more than 60% people on WhatsApp in India message a business app account. Daily conversations between people and businesses more than doubled in India since last year,” the spokesperson adds.

Users express certain concerns. “WhatsApp feels like a chaotic blend of various elements, with everyone from your family, friend circle and work life interacting with you via the same app,” says Kashvi Parekh, 21, a community lead at World of Women, a digital membership club for art, tech and culture based on blockchain. “My communication landscape comprises 60% Instagram DMs (direct messages),” she adds. “I like that I can sort my conversations into Primary and General categories on Insta.” She even uses the messaging interface of Life360, a live-location sharing app, to keep track of her family’s whereabouts. “It makes it easier to chat by offering prompts like ‘ETA’, ‘What’s up?’, etc.”

Ankit Kumar, 25, a growth consultant from Bengaluru, finds Instagram DMs convenient to keep in touch with people: “I can connect with friends just by sharing memes and reacting to the ones they sent.” He prefers Instagram and Twitter to make new connections as they eliminate the need for phone numbers. “It’s easier to ask for someone’s social media handle,” he adds. Conversations via WhatsApp tend to be more intentional than in ot her apps, says Shaheena Attarwala, a product designer. “On WhatsApp, you need to make that decision to message someone and often there is an awkward start to it. On platforms like Instagram, you can break the ice with people who might not even be in your inner circle by just liking or commenting on their posts.” WhatsApp is a pure-play communication tool, whereas unintentional messaging apps like Instagram add nudges to conversations and help one reconnect organically, she adds.

Further, people expect realtime responses on WhatsApp because work often spills into that inbox. Nikhil Taneja recently updated his WhatsApp status to inform his contacts that he is not very active on the app anymore. “I wrote it because due to work messages and spam, I was missing out on some of my friends’ messages there. People feel entitled to your time on WhatsApp and label you as rude if you don’t reply as soon as you have seen the message. I believe we should have the power to choose when we reply,” says Taneja, cofounder of Yuvaa, a platform for youth. He has made Insta his main chat app as asynchronous communication is the expected norm there.

“On Instagram, the role of DMs has evolved,” a Meta spokesperson tells ET on email. “While it continues to be a space for transparent, honest and direct communication, it is also now a space for larger friends’ groups, and for connecting with brands.”

Earlier this year, Instagram introduced ‘Quiet mode,’ which disables notifications and notifies senders that the recipient hasn’t been informed about their DM. The app also enables you to send messages without notifying friends late at night or when they are busy, by adding “@silent” in the message. In July, Instagram’s head, Adam

Mosseri, said on the 20VC podcast that teens favour DMs over stories and the feed. In response, he redirected resources to develop messaging tools, even transitioning the Instagram Stories team to focus on DMs.

X, formerly Twitter, has added multiple reaction emojis and the ability to reply to specific messages within an ongoing chat in DMs even as it has restricted the ability of non-premium users to DM anyone. Instagram DMs offer playback speed controls for voice notes. Instagram and WhatsApp both allow disappearing messages. WhatsApp is also reportedly working on launching a feature called Alternate Profile’ that will allow users to separate their personal and professional avatars on the app.

“While social media platforms are working harder towards making their chat experiences superior to the competition, the rest of the companies are trying to leverage their own offerings as a feature through chat,” says Prasanna Venkatesh, director of design at a consumer internet company in Bengaluru. “Companies are realising the value of conversational experiences in the digital world.”

Now, customer care issues for certain food delivery, telecom and ecommerce apps, as well as booking confirmation for certain hyperlocal services are all accomplished through messaging interfaces. Certain airlines also handle booking changes by redirecting to a messaging app to take the transaction forward.

“Previously, these functions were reserved for customer care executives that people would call. Making these processes message-led is also cost-effective for brands,” says Abhishek Gupta, chief customer officer at CleverTap, a customer engagement platform. Gupta adds that if an app’s messaging interface has a limited use case like restricting it to riders and drivers in the case of cab-hailing services, it will limit the feature’s usefulness. “To thrive, apps need to become super apps, which means they have to attract users for both transactions and connections.”

Building a smooth chat experience is challenging although the messaging infrastructure is available on an open-source network. A study by a software developer, Andriy Utkin, shows that Facebook Messenger still uses 5x-6x more power than WhatsApp on Android devices. The study, not without its fair share of criticisms, was widely discussed on Hacker News, a Y Combinator news website.

There are surveillance concerns, too. “If it’s not a core messaging app, it may not be obligated to ensure the privacy of your chats,” says Prateek Waghre, policy director at Internet Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for free and open internet. “If the chatting interface does not have end-to-end encryption, it means your c h a t s are open to decryption,” he adds.

Going forward, Attarwala and Venkatesh envision chat apps to become AI-led, and more visual than textual.

Now, the rise of unintentional messaging apps seems convenient. Most of them don’t require phone numbers to commence a chat. “But this will get quite complicated in future,” says Himanshu Khanna, founder of Openvy.com, a platform for people to chat and create open communities. For one, no one maintains a folder for these chats, he says. WhatsApp is still probably the only messaging app with an in-built search feature. “Soon, recalling chats across platforms will become challenging.”

Khanna also highlights that, globally, the internet consumer has moved on from social media and entered the era of “social habitats” where, instead of being active consumers of content around people in our social circle, they “coexist in digital spheres”. This is bound to get overwhelming. “Soon, whoever solves for segmenting and unifying these chats will have an edge over other players,” he adds. Anyone wants to build a UPI for chats?

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