The newest feature in WhatsApp brings a very different kind of messaging to the world’s most popular chat app. It’s called Channels, and it’s designed specifically for one-to-many broadcasts rather than conversation. The Meta-owned company calls it “a private way to follow what matters” and names local and sports updates among the ways you might use it.
But what is a channel, really? It’s a Twitter feed, minus all the metrics and reply guys. WhatsApp has clearly noticed all the governments, transit agencies, brands, and others looking for a new (and non-Twitter) place to share their most important updates and sees Channels as a drop-in replacement.
Channels is also a creator tool, to some extent, a place for those with an audience to “send text, photos, videos, stickers, and polls,” according to WhatsApp’s launch blog post. The company has plans to build payment and other monetization services into Channels, too. You’ll be able to find channels by searching for them in WhatsApp or by browsing in a newly created directory and see their most recent updates in the Status section of the app.
WhatsApp says privacy is a key part of the experience, which is why channel admin information isn’t shared and the app only stores 30 days’ worth of a channel’s history. Admins can even block screenshots and forwards, making sure that what’s in the channel stays in the channel. Channels aren’t end-to-end encrypted, though; they’re treated more like your messages with businesses, which are also not totally private. But WhatsApp does say it’s thinking about ways to encrypt some channels over time.
This is mostly a really obvious feature for WhatsApp to add. Telegram has had a similar feature, also called Channels and also meant for one-to-many broadcasts, for years. Instagram has a similar feature, too, called broadcast channels. And it actually makes sense to bring this kind of information into WhatsApp; getting air quality updates and train statuses feels more natural in a messaging app than intermingled with everything else on Twitter
But if you zoom out a bit, WhatsApp is quickly turning into something other than just a messaging app. Just in the last few months, the company has made it possible to use one account on multiple phones; has been working on a private newsletter tool and a new username system; added polls and shopping and a bunch of other Facebook-y things to the platform; revamped its Status system; improved its group chats; and much more. Channels is just the latest way WhatsApp is trying to bring social media to messaging.
Like most WhatsApp features, Channels is starting small. The company is planning to launch Channels with “leading global organizations and select organizations in Colombia and Singapore,” and the feature will only be available in those two countries at first. It’ll come to more countries, and channel creation will be available to more users “in the coming months.”
WhatsApp is obviously still a messaging app first — billions of people use it to chat with their friends and loved ones. But as it looks to grow, make more money, and become the all-encompassing super app it wants to be, it’s trying to find ways to be much more than that.