Emerson College student Isa Gonzalez was trying to contact her parents through WhatsApp Monday when the popular messaging service crashed. They were traveling back to the family’s Venezuelan hometown from Bogotá, Colombia — a trip they made to renew her father’s US visa. The four-hour journey was to take them through dangerous territory with an unknown driver.
Without the app to pinpoint their location, Gonzalez said, “it was incredibly stressful” not knowing whether they were safe.
For immigrants and international students like her in the Boston area, the nearly six-hour outage ― which also affected Facebook and Instagram ― revealed the fragility of a crucial network that connects them to friends and loved ones thousands of miles away.
“Everyone in or from Latin America relies on WhatsApp entirely,” Gonzalez said. “The crash has been a wakeup call.”
In a tweet, Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s outgoing chief technology officer, blamed networking issues for the chaos.
WhatsApp dominates person-to-person communication in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. Nearly half a billion people in India use the instant messaging, voice, and video call service, according to India Today. More than 90 percent of adults in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia use it, a 2020 Global Web Index report found.
Dana Janbek, a communications director and master lecturer at Boston University, attributes WhatsApp’s rise to its design and functionality. “It’s more user-friendly than other platforms,” she said. (It’s also up to 63 times cheaper than sending an SMS, according to a 2015 estimate.)
Since 2013, Janbek has researched how refugees use social media in Syria, Jordan, and Germany. WhatsApp “helps them navigate displacement,” she said, providing leads on housing, jobs, and community building.
Its temporary loss “reminded all of us the degree to which we are reliant on these tools,” Janbek said.
Joey Cosio-Mercado, who uses he/they pronouns, felt that firsthand. A BU graduate who moved to New York City just weeks ago, he felt feverish on Monday. He opened WhatsApp to reach his family in the Philippines for advice on navigating health care and COVID-19 testing without insurance. The calls failed — one after another.
Eventually, Cosio-Mercado, 23, reached his father through Apple’s iMessage.
“I was approaching a medical issue without my emergency contacts,” he said.
Months after graduating with a degree in theater studies, Cosio-Mercado is bound by a temporary employment authorization. He uses Instagram and Facebook to find part-time freelance work allowed under the federal agreement.
“It’s scary that this network that is under serious fire now is necessary to my life — as an artist and as an immigrant,” he said.
The outage was less of an issue for Jagan Srinivasan, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor and Shrewsbury resident. He normally wakes up to 20 WhatsApp messages from family members and organizations he works with in India. Without the barrage of notifications, he joked, “We all got more work done.”
Srinivasan switched to voice over Internet Protocol, an alternative phone system, to talk to his mother Monday. But his three children felt WhatsApp’s absence. They regularly chat with cousins in Chennai and Kolhapur through the platform, exchanging videos and engaging in hushed conversations. That communication is a mainstay of their second-generation immigrant experience, Srinivasan said.
“It’s become an inseparable aspect of our kids’ lives,” he said. “They may be born and brought up here. But they have family back home.”
Some immigrants felt the outage was taken too lightly in America. Many people, for example, said they wished Facebook would remain offline permanently.
“Here, it was a joke,” said Camila Maduro, another Emerson College student. In her home country of Honduras, however, ”People freaked out.”
Maduro, 21, said WhatsApp serves as a social and economic tool in Central America. Vendors sell food, services, and handcrafted goods on the platform. During the outage, many stopped receiving orders.
Americans could fall back on Snapchat, e-mail, iMessage, or traditional cellphone calling. But Hondurans have less technological options at their fingertips, Maduro said.
“Where are those people supposed to go?” she asked. “This is their livelihood.”
On Monday, Gonzalez’s parents eventually texted her from several Colombian phone numbers, encouraging her to download Telegram, a cloud-based competitor to WhatsApp. She did, but the app quickly crashed.
Gonzalez, shaken and worried, went to class.
Minutes later, an e-mail from her mother appeared on her laptop. Her parents were safe.
As a precaution, though, Gonzalez and her family have begun looking for alternatives to WhatsApp. “This application can’t be everything,” she said. “I can’t risk that.”
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Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.