WhatsApp has officially launched Communities, a new feature that offers larger, more structured discussion groups and was first tested earlier this year. Communities are designed to help organizations, clubs, schools, and other private groups better communicate and stay organized. They include admin controls, support for sub-groups and announcement groups, 32-person voice and video calls, larger file sharing, emoji reactions, and polls.
Communities can accommodate groups of up to 1024 users and provide end-to-end encryption.
Some Community features, such as emoji reactions, large file sharing (up to 2GB), and the ability for admins to delete messages, had already made their way to the WhatsApp platform prior to today’s launch. Polls, 32-person video calls, and larger group sizes will now be supported by WhatsApp outside of Communities, according to the company.
The new feature may initially be compared to Facebook Groups because both support sub-groups, file sharing, admin functionality, and other features. However, whereas Facebook Groups are frequently used by strangers who share a common interest, WhatsApp Communities are intended for members who are already connected in the real world. Unlike Facebook, WhatsApp is phone number-based, which means that people who join these discussion groups already know each other because they may have exchanged phone numbers or shared their number with a group admin. The phone numbers, however, will be hidden from the rest of the Community and only visible to admins and members of the same sub-groups as you.
This is intended to strike a balance between users’ desire for privacy and the need for fellow group members to be able to contact you. For example, you might not know every parent on your child’s sports team, but you’re probably comfortable interacting with them in a private group setting that exists as a sub-group of the entire school’s Community.
Furthermore, unlike Facebook Groups, which can be found on the platform, WhatsApp Communities are hidden. There will be no search or discovery feature; you must be invited to participate.
At launch, admins of existing group chats will have the option of transitioning their group to Communities or re-creating their group as a Community from scratch. Admins can also add members to groups or send out invite links that allow others to become Community members.
Communities are organized around a central announcement group that notifies everyone of the most important messages. Members, however, can only chat in small sub-groups that the admin has approved. This can prevent members from being inundated with messages about group happenings and events to which they are unrelated. Members could, for example, form a sub-group for a volunteer project or planning group where only a few people need to communicate.
Communities could compete with other apps that have grown in popularity for private and large group communications, such as Telegram and Signal, as well as standard messaging platforms like iMessage and apps aimed at organizations or schools like GroupMe, Band, TalkingPoints, Remind, and others.
WhatsApp also emphasized the encryption aspects of the Communities feature in an announcement, saying that the company is “aiming to raise the bar for how organizations communicate with a level of privacy and security not found anywhere else.”
“The alternatives available today require trusting apps or software companies with a copy of their messages – and we believe they deserve the higher level of security provided by end-to-end encryption,” it said.
There are still concerns that Communities like this could facilitate illegal or dangerous behavior, similar to how Facebook Groups have allowed health and election misinformation to thrive in recent years, stoking the fires that led to events like the January 6 Capitol riot, for example. WhatsApp’s measures to prevent such behavior appear to be limited, as the company states that it will rely on unencrypted information about the Community, such as its “name, description, and user reports,” to determine whether action is required.
It states that if it discovers a group is being used to distribute child sexual abuse material, coordinate violence, or engage in human tracking, it will ban individual Community members and administrators, disband the Community, or ban all Community members, depending on the circumstances. However, the company did note that messages that have already been forwarded will only be able to be forwarded to one group at a time, rather than the current forward limit of five, in an effort to reduce the spread of misinformation.
Of course, the company is still working to repair its privacy reputation following the backlash over its difficult-to-understand policy update last year, which drew the attention of some anti-competition authorities and regulatory bodies, including those in the EU and India. WhatsApp later clarified its policies and stated that the launch of Communities would not necessitate another policy update.
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To gather early feedback, communities have been tested with over 50 organizations in 15 countries. WhatsApp confirmed in August that the feature had been rolled out to a small number of testers but did not provide a launch date.
Today, the feature will begin to roll out to the larger WhatsApp user base, eventually reaching all users worldwide on both Android and iOS.