When Mark Zuckerberg spends $19 billion to acquire WhatsApp, the decision is about far more than just anxiety and greed. It stems from more than the need to keep up with a rapidly changing, growing market. Nineteen billion dollars is almost 2.5 times the gross revenues of Mr Zuckerberg’s Facebook in 2013. So, spending such a sum of money, in cash and stocks, for a relatively small mobile messaging service has to be compelled by more than the threat of irrelevancy. It is true that the young have been showing signs of getting bored with the intellectual demands of Facebook — associated, perhaps, with parental snooping as well— and have begun to prefer the more minimal, and more private, form of social networking afforded by services like WhatsApp. This is also about a shift from being cool to being smart — from laptops to phones. It is significant that after having annihilated MySpace and swallowed up Instagram, Facebook has chosen to let WhatsApp remain independent, so that the latter might carry on doing what it does best — letting people connect, using text, images and voice, but in smaller, more intimate, twosomes and groups, undisturbed by advertising and secured, it seems, by encryption.
But the larger vision of endlessly expanding connectedness, which Mr Zuckerberg has begun to embody, places this newly acquired connection as part of nothing less than getting everybody online, and for free. Mr Zuckerberg’s Internet.org — a projected consortium of companies and, note, governments — seeks to build an all-encompassing “knowledge economy”. Its “mission” is to level the disparities of an industrial economy and make the world “more open and connected”. Therefore, the languages of knowledge, power, commerce and philanthropy converge when Mr Zuckerberg assures the world, “If you know something, then you can share that — and then the whole world gets richer.” It is impossible to ignore Mr Zuckerberg’s sly inclusion of the word, ‘governments’, in this grand idea of a networked consortium. He says that he has been talking to Google and Microsoft, too, about the spirit of collaboration that must inform Internet.org. On such a universal scale, knowing and sharing, or being in the ‘open’, begin to sound somewhat ominous. The hum of connections cannot drown the scarier sound of whistles blowing.