WhatsApp is testing a new feature called Communities to organise groups in larger structures that could be used by workplaces or schools, the messaging service owned by Meta Platforms said on Thursday.
The feature will bring together groups, which are capped at 256 users, under bigger umbrellas where administrators could send alerts to a community of thousands.
Communities could challenge other messaging apps such as Telegram, which has been widely used for communication in the Russia-Ukraine war, and other private messaging platforms, like iMessage or Sign.
“It’s been clear for a while that the way we communicate online is changing,” said Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, announcing the news in a post on his public Facebook profile.
“Most of us use social networks and feeds to discover interesting content and stay updated. But for a deeper level of interaction, messaging has become the centre of our digital lives. It’s more intimate and private, and with encryption it’s more secure too”.
The messaging service, which is end-to-end encrypted and has about 2 billion users, said the Communities feature would also be end-to-end encrypted.
"This is really oriented at the communities you're already a part of in your life that are doing private communication," Whatsapp head Will Cathcart said in an interview with Reuters, citing Salesforce-owned Slack or Microsoft Teams as comparable types of communication.
He said there were no current plans to charge for the new feature, which is being beta tested with a small number of global communities, but did not rule out offering "premium features to enterprise" in the future.
What are the main features?
WhatsApp has grappled with abuses including bulk messaging and the spread of misinformation and hate speech.
Cathcart said users would not be able to search for different Communities on WhatsApp and that it would use anti-abuse tools and safeguards like forwarding limits for the new feature.
WhatsApp said there would also be changes to its Groups feature before the launch of Communities.
It said it was adding the ability for group administrators to delete problematic messages from everyone's chat and admins could remove people from an entire Community group, while users will have the ability to silently leave a group, without everyone else being notified of their exit.
Groups will also get voice chats for up to 32 people at once.
Communities will also have features for groups, including emoji reactions, file sharing and larger voice calls.
Zuckerberg said that Communities would be rolled out over the coming months.
He said Meta would be building community messaging features for Facebook, Messenger and Instagram.
Meta also plans to roll out end-to-end encryption across the other messaging services on its apps as part of its ongoing, declared pivot towards privacy.