WhatsApp will start experimenting with Communities, an update that represents a “major evolution” for the messaging app, according to Mark Zuckerberg. An unreleased version of the feature was first spotted last year, but the company hadn’t confirmed its existence until now.
Communities will allow people to combine separate group chats “under one umbrella with a structure that works for them,” WhatsApp wrote in a blog post. “That way people can receive updates sent to the entire Community and easily organize smaller discussion groups on what matters to them.”
The company hasn’t shared details around exactly how these groups will be formed, but a spokesperson said the idea is to give “close-knit groups” more ways to communicate beyond the chat features currently offered by WhatsApp. The company will start testing the feature later this year in “select countries,” but will eventually make it available globally.
In a post on Facebook, Zuckerberg said that Communities would be a major shift for WhatsApp and Meta, one that emphasizes “feeds” and traditional social networking features less than “community messaging.”
“In the same way that social feeds took the basic technology behind the internet and made it so anyone could find people and content online, I think community messaging will take the basic protocols behind one-to-one messaging and extend them so you can communicate more easily with groups of people to get things done together,” he wrote. He added that Meta was working on similar features for Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook as well.
It’s also a playbook Meta has used in the past. In 2017, Zuckerberg tried to reorient Facebook around Groups and “meaningful communities.” The company started building new feature for Groups and encouraging users to join as part of its new mission to "bring the world closer together.” Zuckerberg seems to be following the same strategy now with WhatsApp, which is far more popular than Facebook in much of the world.
Making WhatsApp more like Groups on Facebook also comes with some risks, though.Facebook’s earlier pivot to Groups may have resulted in increased polarization on the platform, and Groups have also been pegged as major sources of misinformation on the platform. And WhatsApp, which due to its encryption lacks many of the moderation tools available to Facebook, has already struggled with misinformation and other problematic content. Making it even easier to connect disparate group threads into one place could potentially exacerbate these issues.
A spokesperson said the company is “building a number of updates” focused on safety, and pointed to new controls that allow admins to delete messages and existing limits on message forwarding.