Mashable reported yesterday that WhatsApp is experimenting with a big change to one of its most popular features.
The messaging app is now testing an algorithm for Status that will sort updates by relevance, rather than chronological order. WhatsApp is starting to test the feature now with a small subset of iPhone users in Brazil, Spain, and India, and plans to roll it out more broadly in the future, according to sources familiar with the company’s plans.
The new algorithmic sorting will order WhatsApp’s Status updates — that’s the messaging app’s version of Stories — based on whose update is likely to be most relevant. Up until now, updates have been placed in reverse chronological order, with the most recent Status appearing first.
But this method can be unwieldy for some, as it gives preference to the people who post most often. Instead, the new algorithm will take a variety of signals into account, such as whose Statuses you frequently view and interact with, as well as who you message with the most often.
If it was any other app, this kind of change wouldn’t be particularly surprising. But WhatsApp is somewhat different from its counterparts in that it emphasizes privacy. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, the encrypted messaging app doesn’t collect very much data on its users. The new algorithm won’t change that, as the information it needs to make its determinations will be kept on users’ phones, and won’t touch WhatsApp’s servers (if you have backups enabled, your preferences will be saved as part of the backup, however).
Still, Facebook has a messy history with algorithms. When Facebook first moved News Feed to an algorithmic feed it was almost immediately unpopular, and Instagram’s algorithm is still so hated in some corners, the company has had to repeatedly quash rumours that it isn’t intentionally burying posts.
Of course, Status already tends to be a little more curated than the typical social media feed, since you only see updates when both people have each other saved in their contacts list. And the group you message with is likely smaller than the typical Facebook or Instagram feed, to begin with. So it’s possible the effects of an algorithm might not be as dramatic.
But even the smallest tweaks can prove to be controversial when you have more than 450 million people using a feature every day. That’s likely why this is a change that will be introduced slowly. After its initial tests with iPhone users in Spain, Brazil, and India, the company will begin tests with Android. Those early tests will help inform any tweaks that need to be made before it might be ready for a full, official launch.