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Four years and $22 billion later, WhatsApp has decided ads aren’t awful, after all

First rule about being bought by an advertising company: You’re probably going to end up selling advertising.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

2012 WhatsApp: We don’t sell ads because ads are bad.

2014 WhatsApp: You want to buy our company for $22 billion, Facebook? Deal.

2016 WhatsApp: We’re going to use WhatsApp data to help Facebook sell ads.

Things change, perspectives evolve, and sometimes things you said a couple years ago aren’t what you think today. Happens all the time.

Just ask Mark Zuckerberg, who used to have a problem with ads that tracked what you did on the Web, but doesn’t anymore.

Now WhatsApp CEO (and Facebook board member) Jan Koum appears to be on a similar evolution.

In 2012, Koum kicked off a blog post called “Why we don't sell ads” by quoting Tyler Durden, the fictional, anti-advertising “Fight Club” anarchist, and then ramped up the rhetoric from there.

“Advertising isn't just the disruption of aesthetics, the insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought. At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it's all being logged and collated and sliced and packaged and shipped out .... And at the end of the day the result of it all is a slightly different advertising banner in your browser or on your mobile screen. Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.”

Koum also explained that “Your data isn't even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of it.”

Now, a couple years into his Facebook time, Koum’s thinking has changed. He will share WhatsApp data with Facebook for several reasons. One of them: That way, Facebook can show WhatsApp users better ads.

“Facebook can offer better friend suggestions and show you more relevant ads if you have an account with them. For example, you might see an ad from a company you already work with, rather than one from someone you've never heard of.”

Standard stuff, and inevitable once Facebook acquired the company. Facebook is in the enviable position of not having to turn its $22 billion acquisition into a money-maker overnight. But it’s impossible for Facebook to see a giant user base like WhatsApp and not try to ... turn it into a product.

Meanwhile, WhatsApp still doesn’t show ads to its users, and it still promises not to show them “third-party banner ads and spam.”

Which is different from pledging to never show its users any ads at all. I asked a WhatsApp rep if they could make that promise. They declined to comment.

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