In the Siberian province of Yakutia, WhatsApp is basically the internet

Still, we don’t recommend texting in this weather.
Still, we don’t recommend texting in this weather.
Image: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov
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Under the news articles on the popular Yakutian portal Ykt.ru are the usual buttons: “Share on Facebook,” “VKontakte” and “Odnoklassniki,” Russia’s most popular social networks. But go to the mobile version of the site and another button appears: “Share on WhatsApp.”

A single news story is sometimes reposted 200 times on the messaging app. On Facebook, notes from online publications show up in a user’s feed as reposts from friends; on WhatsApp they arrive via group chats. Yakutsk, the provincial capital, has about 300,000 inhabitants, and each one is a member of dozens of such chats: work colleagues, fellow parents at a school, shopping buddies, residents of a neighborhood. A noteworthy piece of news can do the rounds of WhatsApp users in seconds.

Old people go into cellphone stores to ask for ”a cheap phone that WhatsApp works on.” They know the kids are using the messaging service, it’s easy and free, and they want to stay in touch. The Ushnitsky brothers (link in Russian), Yakutia’s kings of casual gaming, recall how an acquaintance recently bought an apartment in a new building, and the neighbors added him to a chat group there and then.

Banks, shops and restaurants maintain channels on WhatsApp; social organizations provide information through its chat groups. For local media outlets, WhatsApp is a substitute for Twitter. News of fires and accidents often appears first on the messaging service. For instance, a police official sends the “journalists’ chat” a message whenever something happens in the city.

The phenomenon has its shortcomings. Unlike on Facebook or Twitter, on WhatsApp the author of the initial message very quickly falls off the message thread, so finding the original source is practically impossible. People in Yakutsk face a serious problem: how to avoid the hoaxes that regularly crop up on the network. Not long ago, a message spread via WhatsApp about the death of Yakutia’s first president, citing News.Ykt.Ru. State media were obliged to come out with rebuttals. Announcements of famous people’s deaths are one of the most popular kinds of news on the service overall.

What people write about

For the past two years news from WhatsApp has regularly appeared in local media. In March a video was widely shared in which, with the Russian tricolor in the background, two young men with masked faces address the Yakut nationalists who beat up some young men (link in Russian) at the Cinema-Center movie theater in Yakutsk. The police began an investigation under the anti-extremism law.

In February a Yakutsk resident broke up with his girlfriend and published a revealing photo of her on WhatsApp. Criminal charges were brought against him for disseminating personal information, and after being tried he was sentenced to six months of hard labor. Shortly afterwards another young man published a photo of his girlfriend with the words “She can do anything.” The court found it to be a violation of the statute on slander.

WhatsApp is often used to search for missing people. In March the parents of a schoolgirl wrote in the parental group chat that she had disappeared and her phone was unreachable. Within minutes it emerged that the girl had simply stayed late with some friends.

Why in Yakutia?

Just two years ago internet service in the republic cost 2,000 rubles (at the time, about $65) a month, which many couldn’t afford, and the connection was slow. For most people, local sites and local news were all there was. In principle, this wasn’t a hardship for Yakutians, who even today read mostly about what’s around them; on Ykt.ru, the “Yakutia” section leads the “Russia” and “World” sections in visits by a large margin.

Second, in winter, when it’s -60°C (-76°F) in Yakutsk, people sit at home, and swapping messages with friends via WhatsApp is convenient. People exchange famous sayings, quotes, recipes, much that has to do with Yakut culture, and greeting cards in the Yakut language. Making something go viral on WhatsApp is a sport in itself.

Third, the messaging app is extremely simple to use. Elderly people often don’t even realize they’re on the internet.

The future—in messaging

According to a Reuters Institute report (pdf), in the past year the number of people who read news on smartphones instead of computers has increased sharply. Worldwide, about 40% of users open pages on smartphones. More often than not they read news via Facebook and Twitter.

Media experts see popular messaging services as the next stage of development—Generation Z already isn’t sticking around on social networks but spends more and more time on messaging apps.

According to official figures, In 2014 Russia’s far east, of which Yakutia is a part, became the region with the fastest-growing smartphone penetration (Russian) in the country. Many people there don’t have computers, but there are now reasonably cheap phones. Every (or almost every) smartphone in Yakutsk now has WhatsApp installed. According to a survey by Drom.ru, 93.7% of the people in Yakutia use WhatsApp. That’s the highest percentage among the cities of the far east.

Without even realizing it, Yakutians have shown us what the next stage of media development will look like—one in which communication has moved from social networks to messaging.

This originally appeared on Russian business-news site Sekret Firmy and is republished with permission. Translation by Gideon Lichfield.