It's rare to find a company in Silicon Valley that refuses to turn its users' information into advertising revenue.
Google, Microsoft and Twitter all do it -- the last few years have been an arms race to see who can delve deeper into your life to get you to part with your money. But the founders of WhatsApp, a smartphone messaging service that is wildly popular around the world, proudly declared they would never make their users the product. They built their brand off of this guiding philosophy and used it to differentiate themselves in a crowded market.
It appears these deep moral convictions were short-lived though. WhatsApp has just sold for a massive sum to Facebook, the company that has aggressively turned your social interactions into a revenue source. Whatever promises of autonomy the founders are giving to users right now mean little -- the 450 million+ WhatsApp users are now part of the Facebook empire. The same entrepreneur who once said that ads are "insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought" is now on the board of a company that has built one of the most invasive advertising platforms in history.
There have been some early assurances that we won't be seeing ads on WhatsApp. However, there are also ominous warnings of a coming monetization once growth reaches a certain level.
But ads are just one aspect of not making the user the product -- it's far more complex than what you see on your screen. Like Google, Facebook is becoming a collection of apps and services instead of a single website. Just as Google has used the Google+ social network as a tool for consolidating personal information, Facebook has been singularly focused on becoming your online identity. What you say and do in one place is sure to be analyzed for use in another -- and there have been no specific promises made about collecting, sharing and analyzing the content of messages, relationships and financial information that WhatsApp holds.
It's no surprise that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would act shrewdly in the interest of his company or that a business would try to make the most amount of money it possibly can. The story behind WhatsApp is a remarkable tale of hardship, vision and perseverance. But once the celebrating and armchair analysis are over, what is left is a cautionary tale for consumers. In the rough, fast-moving world of technology, start-ups simply don't have the credibility anymore to tell you how your information will be used down the line. So as users, you must act accordingly.
WhatsApp is hardly alone; throughout the industry there is a focus on short-term gain over long-term impact. Few entrepreneurs want to build brands that last anymore. Silicon Valley looks down upon those who are not trying to sell out to a corporate giant as soon as possible. Just look at the criticism that SnapChat founder Evan Spiegel received for having the "audacity" to turn down an acquisition offer from Facebook. This gets to a greater contradiction at the heart of start-up culture today: the rhetoric is all about being different while the reality is starting to resemble corporate business as usual.
In a company blog post, WhatsApp has made one final promise: "Here's what will change for you, our users: nothing." Whether that is actually true or just more marketing and spin is up for the users to decide. All they need to do is look at what happened yesterday to see what lies ahead.
This article originally appeared on Forbes - Disruption and Democracy. Check out my upcoming book, Identified: How They Are Getting To Know Everything About Us