UX Note: I see dead people…on WhatsApp.

I See Dead People
“I see dead people”

How and why WhatsApp grew at the rate it did in the years it has been in existence is a topic of much discussion. Most people attribute it to the fact that WhatsApp got rid of the concept of a ‘buddy list’ and just used the person’s address book in their phone to connect them to other WhatsApp users. I feel like the side-effects of this system haven’t been discussed in detail.

Multiple SIM Cards

One topic I have seen discussed is the problem people run into when they use multiple SIM cards, such as switching cards when traveling. I recall traveling last year and was surprised when I loaded a different SIM that WhatsApp recognized the phone was operating on a new number, and asked if I wanted to switch to the new number. At the time I didn’t realize the significance of the switch. When you change numbers, anyone who has your other number in their address book becomes disconnected from you (unless they also have the new number).

Why is it that a single WhatsApp account can’t be connected to more than one phone number/device? It seems a silly limitation. Changing the number from the WhatsApp perspective seems to be based on the consideration that a person might change their phone number. With number portability, it seems to me more likely that people switch SIMs to get service in different places, such as cheaper service in other countries.

In the developing world it’s very common for people to carry more than one SIM card with them, and some phones even support multiple SIM cards. Even Samsung makes dual-SIM models of its Galaxy S phone line, although those phones are not available (directly) outside of Asia.

Dead People

So what does that have to do with dead people? My current address book on my iPhone has entries that date back to my Pilot 5000 (that was a first generation Palm device released in 1996). That address book was eventually synced with my Mac Address Book, and then to my iPhone. The oldest entries in my address book don’t have cell numbers in them, as in 1996 not everyone had one. Among the people whose cell numbers I have, if they changed their numbers before number portability became common, and then later joined WhatsApp with their new numbers, obviously I wouldn’t know they were on WhatsApp. However, consider what happens when someone in your address book passes away. Unfortunately, this has happened. After enough time this happens to everyone. What happens to that person’s phone numbers? Generally they’re released back into the pool of available numbers and assigned to new subscribers. What happens when those people sign up to WhatsApp and register their phones with their new number? That’s right. Dead people from your address book show up in WhatsApp. I’ve had this happen a couple of times that I’ve noticed.

Flipping Through My Contacts

As I was writing the above I flipped through my WhatsApp address book. What I found was interesting. One dead person. Several people with multiple listings, where one was clearly their current number and others their older numbers. Sometimes I have more than one cell number for people who had more than one phone and then they dropped others, without removing the ones that were dropped. I noticed one of my friends with one account which appeared to be him, and another with a status written in Arabic. While it’s possible my friend learned Arabic, I’m guessing it’s more likely he got rid of one phone and that someone else who speaks Arabic now has that number. Lots of people I am no longer in touch with, or at least not in touch with via phone (Hi Facebook Friends), show up with WhatsApp accounts but are clearly not them either. Other than the status message, one can tell by the profile image as well. When I have a male friend and a female photo shows up, it’s a good chance it’s not the right person.

Arabic Status
Two WhatsApp accounts from the same address book entry

Another sub-category of incorrect listings in WhatsApp are travel numbers. I live in Israel and when people come here from the US to visit they frequently rent a phone or SIM for their visit. I add their temporary number to their address book entry in my phone, and rarely remember to remove them after they leave. All those people who have visited from abroad over the years, whose phone number have over the years ended up on other people’s phones here in Israel, show up among my WhatsApp contacts.

I even show up in my WhatsApp contacts, and can message myself. That’s pretty funny.

These problems are not unique to WhatsApp. I’ve seen them with Viber as well. I would think all of the mobile-first messaging apps that have linked to the phone’s address book have similar problems. These are not insurmountable problems, and I’m sure they will be resolved in the future. Hopefully one day I won’t have to worry about dead people showing up in my messaging apps.

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