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That Day In Brazil When WhatsApp Didn't Work

A temporary ban on the Facebook-owned messaging service sent countless Brazilians into a momentary panic, revealing how rapidly communication habits have evolved.

A tap away
A tap away
Felipe Maia

SAO PAULO — In the garden next to a shopping mall on São Paulo's Paulista Avenue, 22-year-old vendor Camila Lima is taking a break to call her mother, who lives on the other side of the country.

Normally her fingers would do the talking, but today she has her cellphone up against her ear. Why? Because two hours earlier, WhatsApp — the popular messaging service and Camila's go-to means of communicaiton — was blocked nationwide due to a dispute over access to encrypted data.

The ban, ordered Monday by a judge in the northeastern state of Sergipe, was originally supposed to last 72 hours. As it turned out, a counter-ruling ended the WhatsApp freeze after just one day later.

But during the fateful Monday, Camila was feeling a bit lost in the WhatsApp-less wilderness. The call she makes to her mother won't go through. "My brother and I both live here in São Paulo," she says. "My mother must be worried right now."

Camila doesn't use the app just to exchange messages with her mother. It's also how she gets her office schedule and work instructions. But with Monday's ban, most people had to go back to the origins of cellphones — making actual calls — and temporarily forget about WhatsApp's text or voice messages, its two blue ticks and the wait for the recipient to have the compassion to reply.

It may seem strange, outdated even, but calling people is actually pretty common still, even with smartphones. A poll carried out by Datafolha last June suggested that 22% of Brazilian smartphone owners use their devices to call more than anything else, making it the second biggest group behind the 27% who use it mostly for social networking. Messaging was the most common usage for just 18%. But the results also showed generational differences. For those aged between 16 and 24, only 17% used their phones mostly for calling, behind social networking and messaging.

Still, there's no denying that habits have changed over the past few years. Like Camila Lima, businessman Daniel Linger, 34, does much of his communicating via WhatsApp. With the ban in place, he just had to call his fiance the old-fashioned way. But for other things — such as organizing his bachelor party — Daniel migrates over to another Mark Zuckerberg-owned app: Messenger.

Independent from Facebook since 2014, Messenger seems to have benefited from its cousin's ban. Many interviewees tell us they turned to it as an alternative to WhatsApp. And with 900 million users around the world, Messenger is moving closer to WhatsApp's 1 billion users, including close to 100 million in Brazil alone.

For many poeple, however, WhatsApp is still their platform of choice. Some users say Messenger is slower and has fewer functions. "Audio messages have to be shorter in Messenger, and its interface is more complicated," says IT expert Bruno Cavalcanti, 24, who lives in Dublin but is spending his holidays in São Paulo.

Competition coach Sara Teixeira, 31, says that WhatsApp makes people feel closer to one another, that it's more intimate. "I receive messages until midnight, messages about work, people with questions about work," she says.

Others see the bright side of the ban. José Ronaldo, a 24-year-old bartender, says that people are usually too focused on their smartphones to even hear his explanations about the different drinks. "People are chained to their phones," he says. When it comes to his own cellphone use, José is careful to set limits. He only exchanges messages with two people: his mother, and his boss.

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