User domestication

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User domestication was an interesting phrase that I noticed in an essay about the growth of WhatsApp. In the essay the author highlighted a number of factors in WhatsApp’s success:

  • Having a proprietary messaging client that didn’t support industry standards for messaging such as the XMPP protocol supported by Google Talk. (Google later abandoned the XMPP open protocol itself in favour of its proprietary Google Hangouts).
  • WhatsApp had a low learning curve of adoption through to a well designed user experience.
  • The user experience of WhatsApp was easy to learn
  • WhatsApp worked across both Android and iOS devices which helped its adoption through network effects

This led to a number of things, which the author identified as user domestication factors:

  • A high level of user dependence on WhatsApp
  • No control over the software. (it can’t be modified, it prevents migration to another platform – a la Facebook and people’s address book)
  • Exploitation of ‘captive users’ who would find it difficult to resist

If all of this sounds familiar, its because it was the Facebook playbook from the get-go. Like organising export of your address book from Yahoo! to Facebook, but not the other way around.

Messing around with iPad
Captured attention

The author makes clear that WhatsApp is just an illustrative example.

This probably explains why the essay doesn’t seem to match up with the WhatsApp story pre-Facebook. Founders Brian Acton and Jan Koum originally had a nominal subscription model. Acton went on to help set up the Signal Foundation, after leaving WhatsApp post Facebook takeover. His reason for leaving was concerns over the monetisation of WhatsApp by Facebook.

But I think that there can be little argument that Facebook thought of WhatsApp as a user domestication opportunity.

The relationship that the media industry has with consumers through the use of DRM (digital rights management) is a similar form of user domestication mentioned in his essay.

Another example of this ‘user domestication’ in action is the apparent failure of Google’s search choice screen to have any effect on its monopoly market share in Europe.

It differs from previous generations of technology lock-in exercised by the likes of Microsoft, IBM and Apple in that the costs of these obvious upfront. In user domestication, the costs are less apparent and the value extraction happens on an ongoing basis.

More information

WhatsApp and the domestication of users

WhatsApp founder Brian Action, says Facebook used him to get its acquisition past EU regulators | Techcrunch