The news alert buzzed on my cellphone in Beijing. Facebook had bought messaging service WhatsApp for a gazillion dollars. Personally, I didn’t care.
Because Chinese government censors have blocked so many global social-media and technology services — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, plus any number of media sources — the People’s Republic has nurtured its own unique tech ecosystem. It’s like we’re a Madagascar populated with unearthly lemurs, instead of the usual chattering monkeys. And sometimes those lemurs do really cool tricks.
The reason the WhatsApp news didn’t resonate is that most of us living in China use WeChat (or Weixin, 微信) instead. WeChat is the brainchild of Tencent, one of the largest Internet service providers in China. Westerners may not have heard of Tencent but its Hong Kong-listed arm boasts a market capitalization of $140 billion. As of last fall, WeChat had more than 270 million monthly users, compared to WhatsApp’s 450 million. But WeChat doubled its user base in a year, the kind of growth that should make WhatsApp pay attention to this Chinese monster app. While WhatsApp is popular in the Americas and Europe, WeChat is making inroads into East Asia and Africa. (WeChat is hardly the only Asian mobile messaging service out there, with LINE, Kakao and Viber also gaining fans.)
WeChat combines the best of Facebook and WhatsApp — and then adds a slew of monetizing innovations of its own. (Some ideas have been borrowed from another Chinese Internet giant, Alibaba.) From playing mobile games and hailing taxis to posting video and making online payments, WeChat is an all-you-can-use mobile service. This Chinese New Year, for instance, users delighted in sending and receiving online red packets (红包) of lucky money. A function called “shake” allows WeChat users within a certain radius to find each other by jiggling their cellphones. It sounds silly but walk into a crowded Beijing restaurant, and you’ll see a fair amount of shaking going on.
WeChat also refines the Facebook experience by allowing easy photo posting. A more private comments system includes only those people you’re friends with — not random friends of friends who can clutter your feed. Group chats allow convivial and efficient communication — one high-level Chinese government official I met recently admitted to using group chats to catch up with old university friends.
Because texting in Chinese characters is cumbersome, WeChat allows users to send quick voice messages instead. Indeed, SMS traffic has declined in China because of WeChat. Tencent is rolling out financial-services products that users can tap into via WeChat — imagine mutual funds via mobiles. The parent company, which also runs a popular instant-messaging service, expects revenues topping $1 billion this year. Oh, and unlike WhatsApp, WeChat is free to download for users.
WeChat does have its problems. One is the sticker shop that tenaciously attaches itself to my profile. I have no need for stickers and don’t need an alert every time an emoticon is added to my potential library of cuteness.
But a much larger concern is this: WeChat — like Weibo, the microblogging platform that proliferated in China in the absence of Twitter — is monitored by the Chinese government. For most people, who use WeChat to buy stuff or play games or message Mom or flirt online with suitors across a crowded bar, such official supervision doesn’t matter. But Weibo, which flew to such amazing heights a few months ago, is now slumping amid an overall crackdown on dissent. If WeChat is to really expand beyond China, it will have to convince users not only that it’s cooler and more efficient than WhatsApp, but also that it’s more liberating.