Ditching WhatsApp

WhatsApp has served me well as a communications medium for my family, but I was never thrilled with its ownership by Facebook, and the recently announced privacy changes made it necessary for me to move on.

Here’s how to do it:

Move to Signal

The first step is moving yourself and your contacts to a replacement messaging service. The security experts who know more than I do recommend Signal so I installed the smart phone app and the desktop app. I then convinced my key contacts to do the same.

Ease off

It took a little while to get all of my contacts onto Signal so I was using both WhatsApp and Signal for a little while. In order to make sure that I defaulted to using Signal I moved WhatsApp to the second screen on my phone, putting Signal where it used to be, and closed the WhatsApp Web tabs on my computers. Eventually I removed WhatsApp from the second screen to make it particularly inconvenient to use.

Backup WhatsApp data

After several years of WhatsApp usage I had a lot of messages accumulated and I didn’t want to lose that history. I found various guides giving complicated instructions for decrypting and parsing databases, but ultimately I found a much easier two-step way (tested on Android):

Export without media1) You need to export the text of your conversations from each group or personal chat. You do this by going to the chat, tapping on the three-dot menu, tapping More, and then tapping Export chat. It will ask whether want to export with or without media and you should select Without Media. The reason is that the total size of the export is limited to 1 MB and including media means you might only get a few weeks of history. With media excluded I was able to export 3.5 years of our family chat. You can export the media separately. Again, repeat this for every chat that you care about. You can export to various locations but I used Google Drive. Each chat will be a text file with a line for each message sent. Our family chat room had over 14,000 messages.

2) Once you have exported all of your chat text you probably want to get your media. We shared a lot of photos on WhatsApp and I didn’t want to lose those. To get these I plugged in my phone with a USB-C cable to my laptop. I then swiped down from the top to look at notifications and tapped where it said Android System – Charging this device via USB, and then tapped again for more options. This gave me the option to tap File transfer and when I did that the Internal shared storage of my phone appeared. I opened that folder and then opened the WhatsApp folder and then the Media folder within that. It looks like the Media folders contains all of the photos and videos that you have ever sent, from all chats. If you copy this to your computer then you are all set.

Random chat picturesI was originally worried about losing all of the chat history and media, but once I backed it up I found that in some ways it became more accessible. Each chat is a text file and I can search them quickly and easily, without having to painstakingly scroll backwards. Similarly with the media I can scroll through the pictures very quickly. I’ve enjoyed rereading some of the old messages, and rewatching a linked video of my nephew making me a martini. No regrets.

Delete your account

Delete account confirmationOnce you are satisfied that you are done with WhatsApp you need to delete your account in order to (one hopes) remove all record of your connections. In the WhatsApp app tap the three-dot menu, tap Settings, tap Account, and then tap Delete my account.

Once you’ve done that you can delete WhatsApp and never look back.

Twitter announcement of this post is here.

About brucedawson

I'm a programmer, working for Google, focusing on optimization and reliability. Nothing's more fun than making code run 10x as fast. Unless it's eliminating large numbers of bugs. I also unicycle. And play (ice) hockey. And sled hockey. And juggle. And worry about whether this blog should have been called randomutf-8. 2010s in review tells more: https://twitter.com/BruceDawson0xB/status/1212101533015298048
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9 Responses to Ditching WhatsApp

  1. Nopeasti says:

    I have been using Signal since its release, I even implemented a few features for the desktop app back in the day. It has been a tough ride at times with bugs and lack of features, but now the application is so much more mature, and it’s really nice to see more and more people joining on board. And now I also have a blog post to link when I need an how-to to help my contacts migrate 🙂

    • brucedawson says:

      Thank you for blazing the path for us latecomers. It is appreciated.

      I wish the desktop app let me scroll through media, and I wish _underlines_ turned words into italics, but otherwise I’ve had no complaints.

  2. kuro68k says:

    How did you get people to switch to Signal? Only one person I’ve asked has actually done it.

    • brucedawson says:

      I think it’s some combination of an agreement that Facebook is problematic together with trusting me as a tech expert together with “why not”?

      Also, I said that I was going to switch regardless.

      Ultimately it was pretty easy for all so there wasn’t much resistance. But it was a small set of people.

  3. Sergey says:

    What do you think about Telegram?

  4. Dom says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written, but there’d be a hell of a lot more incentive if you were on my Signal contact list in order to hand off stupid bugs for investigation, naming and shaming!

  5. Martin Ba says:

    This is a nice and helpful post. While reading it after using Signal in parallel with Wh’app, I can’t help but notice:

    (And yes, maybe this is a bit ranty, seeing how I am rather disappointed in the backup+restore capabilities and granny-applicability of Signal atm.)

    * While Wh’app’s method of exporting Chats is certainly meh, at least it’s something anyone can do.
    * Because, Signal DOES NOT in any way have such a feature at them moment. (And whether it will get one is up in the stars, though I suppose it’s bound to happen sooner or later.)
    * The you have your family media-files, which, with Wh’app, you could just copy from your phone.
    * No such luck with Signal, because it will store all chat media in it’s own encrypted database — which makes total sense from a security POV, and makes *very little* sense for most users that I know: When they send or receive a picture of cousin Frank’s dog, they *want* to be able to see it in their phone gallery without having to save it from the Messaging app first.
    * At least we have https://github.com/xeals/signal-back which I haven’t tried yet, but will as soon as I get around to it. But …
    ** Oh, my: https://kabanashvili.com/blog/post/backup-and-decrypt-signal_1f91be7ok9jvmqrf
    * Wh’app’s backup is automatic and incremental, hence *fast*, and while it is crappy in that you only can backup to google drive and you can’t access your own backup (only the Wh’app app can) without some major jumping-through-hoops, it just works (have been using it for 4 years now, restored 3 times, never a hassle.)
    * Signal’s backup on the other hand also works as a transfer mechanism, but the backup is
    ** … too big: been using Signal for 3 weeks now and the backup file is already 120MB
    ** … only stored locally on the Android device, so you need a tool like FolderSync to get it to you backup drive/cloud and good luck doing that once the backup file reaches 1,2,3 GB because you have 14,000 family chat messages with media in it.

    What I’m getting at here is: While Signal is certainly a mature app, it *still* *might* be premature to move the family chat to Signal. I was delighted at how far Signal got from when I last used it few years ago. I’m keeping it. But the Media and Backup situation in early 2021 means that I will NOT, recommend it to my larger family as their sole messaging app.

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