This study investigates instant messaging as a form of everyday family communication. Particular focus is given to the use of WhatsApp which is currently one of the most popular instant messaging applications in many countries . The study seeks to answer the question: What is the importance of small messages exchanged via WhatsApp for the sense of social coherence in extended families? In this research, extended families consist of family members representing two or more generations who may live in the same or different households [2, 3]. What makes WhatsApp an attractive communication tool for such families is that it allows both one-to-one and one-to-many interaction, and provides multiple modalities for intergenerational family communication (e.g. voice, text, photos, and videos).
The study argues that the big meaning of small WhatsApp messages emerges from both its technical properties and social affordances. WhatsApp makes it possible to reach more than one family member at time, sometimes the entire family. Multiple modalities allow the choosing of the most suitable mode of communication according to personal and joint preferences of the sender and the receiver(s). Second, the study argues that extended families have harnessed WhatsApp especially for daily phatic communion . That is to say that instead of the exchange of highly relevant and important information, small WhatsApp messages helps to sustain the social bonds between family members whose daily agendas and schedules are often incompatible.
Empirical evidence provided in the study is drawn from qualitative research material collected from Finland and Italy in 2014–2015. Finland is a Northern European country where families and households are characteristically smaller than in Italy that is located in Southern Europe. Both countries were among the forerunners in the adoption and use of mobile phones in Europe. The research material is analyzed following the principles of a directed approach to qualitative content analysis.
The next section provides a short overview of the WhatsApp application and its recent success. Thereafter, prior research of instant messaging in families is presented and definitions for the key theoretical concept of the study are provided. Qualitative methodology and data used in the study are presented before the results section. The study concludes by summarizing the answers to the research question and discussing the limitations of the study.
1.1 WhatsApp’s Growth and Success
WhatsApp is an instant messaging application that runs on mobile communication devices equipped with an Internet connection. It allows sending text, picture, voice and video content, for one person at a time or to several persons using chat groups. WhatsApp can be categorized as a real-time – or near-real-time – communication tool.
In addition to these primary functions, WhatsApp makes possible following the success of a message delivery, such as checking when contacts are available and when they are typing messages. WhatsApp indicates with a ‘tick’ mark when the message has been successfully delivered and with two ‘ticks’ when it has been received and read. Similarly, WhatsApp shows whether other users are currently online and when they last were logged in. The user, however, can disable the latter feature. Previous studies have documented that this micro-scale peer-monitoring is commonly used to check whether a person is available, without a real intent to contact them [1, 5].
Following the release of WhatsApp in 2009, its popularity has grown globally. According to Statista , the total number of WhatsApp users elevated from 200 million to 1.3 billion between April 2013 and July 2017. However, available user statistics are somewhat diverse, incompatible, and unavailable for some countries, despite consistently demonstrating an increase in user rates.
In the context of Nordic countries, the Audience Project  report shows that WhatsApp was clearly more popular in Finland than in any other Nordic country in 2016. In Finland, WhatsApp was ranked as the most popular social media tool, while in other countries it did not come close to the top. In the last quarter of 2016, 68% of smartphone owners in Finland were reported to use WhatsApp. Finns were also very active WhatsApp users, as 49% stated using it several times every day and 29% at least once every day. In comparison, in Sweden the same figures were 25 and 16%, respectively. The same report shows that women (42%) used WhatsApp more than men (32%) in Finland, and that WhatsApp was the most popular social media in all age groups. The penetration rates varied being the highest among 15–25 year-olds (70%), and the lowest for 56+ year-olds (18%). In fact, the growth in the number of users is pronounced compared with 2014, when just more than a third (37%) of Finns reported using WhatsApp . For Italy, the penetration numbers are not so readily available. According to Cosenza, 22 million Italians used WhatsApp in 2017, which is about a third of the total population. While the profile of users is diverse, ranging from the young to the old, the average time spent on WhatsApp in Italy was 11.5 h a month. However, those who use WhatsApp several times a day were typically between the ages of 15 and 24 . Deutsche Bank estimated that the penetration rate of WhatsApp among Italian smartphone users was 68% in 2015 .
1.2 Instant Messaging in Families
Online instant messengers remained for a significant time a communication media mainly utilized by teenagers for peer-to-peer communication and young adults for work-related interaction [10,11,12,13]. Recent studies have also continued to highlight children’s preference to communicate with their peers (and not parents) through mobile and social media tools . As WhatsApp is sneaking into the technological reservoir of older family members, its untapped potential for family communication across generational boundaries begins to unfold.
A majority of prior research deals with the gratifications of instant messengers and similar media tools . Church and de Oliveira  studied 20 to 60 year-old Spaniards, and found that immediacy, a sense of community and free use were considered as the main gratifications of WhatsApp, although SMS was still regarded more reliable, invoking less privacy concerns. O’Hara et al. studied the use of WhatsApp among 17 to 49 year-old Britons with various occupational backgrounds including both individuals and couples . They suggest that WhatsApp is constitutive of commitment and faithfulness included in social relations, and serves the needs of social bonding more than functional exchange of information.
The migration of instant messengers from desktop computers and laptops to smartphones multiplied the total number of users and diversified their socio-demographic profile. Smartphones did not only add mobility to instant messaging but they also extended a range of available modalities from sole text-based messaging (e.g. IRC and AOL’s Instant Messenger) and voice calls to photos, voice messages and Internet calls [17, 18]. The possibility to choose between various modalities makes WhatsApp a suitable tool for connecting people with differing communicative preferences, and by so doing it may help to overcome social differences between family generations.
In extended families instant messengers have to be positioned into intricate parent-child relationships. On the one hand, these relationships reflect children’s opposing needs for autonomy and parental care. Studies show that mobile communication in general serves both ends; they work as an “umbilical cord” between children and parents  and as a medium to gain a bigger degree of independence . On the other hand, the social roles of parent and child are easily inverted in relation to digital technology use. Daily family practice reflects parent’s dependency on their children’s technological assistance and caretaking .
A possibility to sustain and nurture family connections from afar has caused researchers to argue that new communication technologies and social media have produced “networked families” or new relational families [21,22,23,24,25]. However, studies exploring the ways in which families use mobile instant messengers, and their group chat functions in particular, to stay connected are few. One of the few comes from Rosales and Fernández-Ardèvol, who show that while WhatsApp is commonly used across all age groups in Spain, the ways in which smartphones are used relates to interests and communication needs that change as we grow older – more than to age-differentiated skills . Siibak and Tamme argue that Estonian families appreciate new web-based communication tools especially because they offer a way to feel close . The same authors remind that web-based communication technologies serve family relations also when people live in the same household. Portable communication devices and applications are widely used to coordinate activities and share information in the physical proximity of others .
Siibak and Tamme maintain that Estonian families favor synchronous chat groups and other closed online spaces in family communications. This is an important observation since prior research reiterates that face-to-face conversations and telephone calls predominate family communication and local relationships [28,29,30,31]. However, it begins to unfold now that some new forms of social media facilitate more group and small community interaction than early forms of social networking sites, in which multiple audiences easily collapse into one and compromise the privacy of conversations .
Therefore, compared with traditional person-to-person communication channels (like voice calls and SMS) instant messengers are particularly useful for staying in touch with closely related people and communities that favor enclosed and private communication spaces to public or semi-public social media platforms . Close-knit communities, like families, do not seek to reach vast audiences, but are neither limited to private one-to-one communication.
1.3 A Technology of Middle Reach and Phatic Expression
Baym argues that the success of social networking sites is based on their wide, but selective reach [31, p. 30]. She has borrowed the notion of reach from Gurak, who describes it “as the partner of speed” and maintains that digitized contents cannot only travel with speed, but they can also reach large audiences. As Baym acknowledges, media technologies vary in their ability to attain, support, or reach audiences of different sizes. The reach of face-to-face contacts is the narrowest, but the qualities of in-person communication, are also insurmountable. In-person communication involves a range of nonverbal, facial, and bodily cues that are difficult to mediate to their fullest extent using any technological mean. Personal mobile communication tools allow both narrow reach of the closest friends and family members (using phone calls and SMS), but also a wide reach of acquaintances and even strangers (through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and so on).
But as Graham notes, Byam’s observations are based on early forms of ICT and social media . Instant messaging applications like WhatsApp, that feature a closed group chat function, seem to fall in-between these two ends; WhatsApp makes it possible to reach, sustain, and manage middle reach audiences as well. The extended family serves as a good example of such a middle-range community, since it typically involves both close family members, (like siblings and parents), but also distant family members and relatives, (like stepparents and half-siblings), in addition to grandparents living further away. Previous research that relies on rather straightforward distinctions between weak and strong ties easily views contemporary families as a weak nexus of individually networked family members; families that have to make more of an effort to stay connected than the previous generations did .
WhatsApp and similar mobile instant messengers have introduced a new layer to mobile communication, which allows easy communication within families. WhatsApp affords a possibility for rather secure communication for dyadic family relationships and for the entire family communities, who want to discuss private family matters, to exchange emotions, provide care and support without revealing this intimacy in public. Family WhatsApp use does not bring separate individual networks together, but it conjoins family members who all know each other.
In this connection, the “sharing as caring” mantra obtains perhaps a deeper and fuller meaning than anywhere else. While small acts of sharing, such as social media statutes updates, “post sharing”, and “liking”, might be sufficient to establish and maintain weak ties in Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, strong family ties are never established purely online. The strength of family ties is based on a great amount of time, emotion, intimacy, and reciprocal services family members invest in intra-family relationships . Family WhatsApp groups offer a particular channel to maintain and nurture these strong family ties whether near or afar, providing both synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication that helps the juggling of individual daily agendas and timetables. Considering that the notion of sharing points to a set of values that are typically feminine, such as openness, and mutuality , it is not so surprising that WhatsApp is used more widely among women than men.
These affordances of closed WhatsApp chat groups resonate well with the particularities of contemporary extended families, which are geographically dispersed, non-hierarchical, and change their composition over time. These affordances have made WhatsApp a very fit medium for one-to-group communication, and allowed constant family connectivity . Family members, who used to, as Rainie and Wellman write, “mostly dance sole but take part in a few duets and household ensembles” [24, p. 162], can now use a WhatsApp chat group to keep their own band together and play their joint favorite songs non-stop.
The meaning of sharing photos, video clips, and exchanging small text and voice messages is perhaps best captured through the concept of phatic communion. The term was coined by Malinowski, who showed that seemingly meaningless and purposeless talk, greetings, and small talk have an important social function establishing, maintaining and renewing, social bonds between interlocutors . More recently, Miller argued that online media cultures promote mainly social and networking-driven communication at the expense of functional and informational contents, and dialogic intents . In fact, the design of many social media platforms encourage the use of only a short expression by limiting the number of characters a user may use (e.g. on Twitter). This promotes the use of visual material, and provides new ways of expressing emotion with one-click. Wittel pessimistically argues, that in the end all this contributes to the flattening of communication and even to the flattening of social bonds .