A 20-year old college student went missing. He had returned after studies, but went out soon after, saying he was going to meet a friend. But neither did he mention anyone's name nor people at home ask. When he wasn't back even after 10 pm, folks at home began to get worried.
They called him on his mobile. But the calls repeatedly gave an 'out of coverage area' reply. Friends too tried, but to no avail. Messages too evoke no response.
A friend thought of checking WhatsApp. The Last Seen time stamp was only 10 minutes behind the actual time. That meant he was active on the messaging app. But the friends couldn't figure out why he hadn't bothered to inform where he was, but "was happily" WhatsApping.
A quick explanation was he might have tried to call or message but the mobile connectivity might have been bad. He might have been online as his data lines were more stable or he was on someone's Wi-Fi.
No sooner his friend noticed the missing boy's time stamp change to 'online' than he shot off a message.
"Where the hell are you? All are worried."
To the delight of everyone, he replied.
"I am at (a friend's) house. Don't worry. It's raining heavily here. Can't step out. Will come once rain reduces."
"Then why the **** you didn't tell anyone at home ...."
"Chill. Nothing to worry. Call wasn't going through. Will call now. Or you also tell them."
Apparently it was true that in the other part of the city, it was raining, and he was genuinely stuck.
He was back home around midnight to a lecture on how he should remember to keep someone posted on his whereabouts if he wasn't where he normally should be.
But the other takeaways from this incident were: one, how internet-based messaging platforms can help when the default phone call and SMS don't seem to work; and two, perhaps, more significantly, the clue the time stamp on Last Seen can provide about your status.
The above anecdote was narrated by my friend during a recent dinner get together we had with a few of our common friends, when he visited Bengaluru. His story triggered a debate on whether the Last Seen feature is an invasion of privacy or it is helpful.
Here is a gist of the arguments: some on predictable lines, some new lines of thought.
- Since when is WhatsApping a crime?
- Why should I care if someone knows when I checked WhatsApp last? How does it matter to anyone? I might check at 1 in the afternoon or 4 in the night.
- WhatsApp is not like Email. It is an instant messaging platform used for quick communication. So Online and Last Seen are important indicators, that show how easily I can be accessed.
- Hiding doesn't serve any purpose anyway, because the double tick will indicate that I have got the message. And the blue tick (if I haven't disabled that) means I have read it too. So, what is the big deal? What am I trying to hide anyway?
- Since it's an instant messaging platform, I am online most of the time. Then, why publicize additionally the precise timings too?
- It's a system prone to technical issues, and not reliable. One, if the app is running in the background, especially on Android phones, I might be shown as online, when I am not actually. Two, if I only opened the app, and not read or typed a message, sometimes the Last Seen gets updated. Three, when using the web version, sometimes you are shown online, even when you have minimised the browser. The Last Seen feature is flawed and misleading.
- Some people expect a reply from me immediately (on seeing that I have been online), when actually I haven't had time to type out a reply.
- Suppose I was chatting late at night with my friend in the US, my mom wants to know why I wasn't sleeping, and with whom I was chatting late in the night! Mom I can handle, but why should everyone else too know that I was up late into the night. It's total invasion of privacy. A provision to make oneself invisible is what is actually needed.