When One App Rules Them All (Revisited)
WeChat and the sins of omission
A Promising Moment for the Chinese Internet
After a decade of justified derision, Chinese internet companies are enjoying a global celebration of sorts. Over the past year, WeChat (微信) has made its presence known in the Western techno-sphere, heralded as the first, possibly best, and resoundingly most established, of a new generation of messaging applications that are beginning to function as the fundamental platform of the mobile internet.
Connie Chan’s Andreessen Horowitz thought-piece, “When One App Rules them All”, celebrates the platform-innovation at the core of WeChat. The article is a corrective of sorts for both the judgement that Chinese tech companies lack innovation, and the Western understanding-at-a-distance that might bundle WeChat in the same category as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Line. In distinction from these mere messaging apps, WeChat “is actually more of a portal, a platform, and even a mobile operating system depending on how you look at it.”
Likewise, Andrew Schorr of Grata, a China based WeChat services company, confidently celebrates the foundational difference between WeChat and WhatsApp in his appearance on The China Startup Pulse’s recent episode Dragons in the East, WeChat, and cutting through red tape, arguing that WeChat forms a whole world of sorts, integrating many of the familiar functions of the internet, streamlining them.
What distinguishes WeChat from mere messaging apps? Over the course of the last three years, WeChat has rapidly iterated new and unexpected features, including the ability to
- Share pictures, links, songs, official account articles
- Make voice and video calls
- Make mobile payments, especially for taxis, clothing and food
- Like and comment on the shared moments (content) of your friends within an Instagram-like interface
- Create groupchats
- Reserve movie tickets
- Pay bills
- Send speech fragments
- Browse the web
- Shop online
- Check in for flights
- Order food
- Find friends or lovers nearby with a ‘Look Around’ function similar to Tinder
- Respond to anonymous messages a-la now defunct secret
Check out Jonah Kessel and Pual Mozur’s great recent piece for a nice day-in-the-life presentation of the system:
WeChat contains the messaging functionality of WhatsApp, the ride-hailing functionality of Uber, the lifesharing functionality of Instagram, the satiating functionality of Seamless, the location-based-hookup functionality of Tinder, and a host of smaller functionalities. This is all accomplished with a developer interface that enables the easy integration of existing external applications within WeChat. As Chan summarises,
“The way it achieves this goal is through one of the most unsurfaced aspects of WeChat: the pioneering model of “apps within an app”. Millions (note, not just thousands) of lightweight apps live inside WeChat, much like webpages live on the internet.”
Some of the key advantages of WeChat’s “apps within an app” approach include lower, or nonexistent barriers to mobile payments, always-on identity authorization, push-notifications from brands, and general ease of use.
By comparison, in the western internet sphere, users must constantly authorize their identity through facebook, tediously authenticate online payments, and inconveniently navigate from one app to another through their mobile OS. Further, seldom used apps whither away without the ability to send regular push notifications. WeChat solves all of these problems. As Chan succinctly states,
“because users have to opt-in to official accounts, they are essentially always “logged in” to them. This is especially effective for lower frequency but important services like managing credit card statements or utility bills. Such apps are perfectly suited to the lightweight app model, because users are spared the trouble of downloading separate native full-featured apps”
From the perspective of business services, WeChat solves many of the key pain-points by establishing a mobile internet experience where identity is always authenticated. As WeChat begins to supplant the mobile OS as the default mobile platform, this ‘always authenticated’ model also solves many of the key pain-points faced by authoritarian government — an avenue of thought we’ll return to in our later critique of the platform.
Why WeChat was Born in China
Why was WeChat born in China? The land of google-clones and counterfeit handbags is by many expectations the last place in the world for foundational technological innovation. This might account for the tendency to understand WeChat as simply a WhatsApp clone — a mistaken identity that isn’t helped by their remarkably similar color schemes and logos:
#c8c8c8 vs #00d40d
Despite initial appearances, China is uniquely poised to innovate in the mobile internet space for two key reasons:
- A widespread adoption of mobile throughout China, as unconnected lower-class citizens ‘leapfrog’ to the internet with mobile devices
- An established culture of Chinese tech-protectionism that affords space for alternative interpretations of what the connected world can become
Leapfrogging to Mobile
According to current research from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), more than 557 million Chinese people connect to the internet through mobile. Not only does China lead the world in mobile internet users, more people in China connect to the internet through mobile devices than desktop devices.
China’s mobile-first internet is driven by two cultural forces: cheap and widely available Android handsets, and a massive population that’s emerging from poverty in a connected world.
For first-time internet-users on a limited budget, the choice between a 150 USD Android handset with 20 USD / month always-connected-internet, and a 600 USD laptop with 40 USD / month of at-home-internet, the decision is obvious.
Beyond the clear economic justifications for mobile-first internet among the economically subsistent classes in China, it’s also worth considering that the whole concept of desktop internet might one day disappear altogether.
According to Benedict Evans’ “Forget About the Mobile Internet,” 66% of UK mobile users use the internet both at home and outside, while 16% use their smartphones mainly at home.
In an important sense, China’s ubiquitous mobile-internet can be understood as an accelerated ‘leapfrogging’ to a more advanced state of technological adoption. This accelerated adoption is prefigured by many examples, including the curious absence of voicemail in China.
Voicemail forms a core offering of any teleco service plan in the west, whether landline or mobile. Viewed from a foreign perspective, voicemail’s absence in China might be a symptom of a culture reliant on cheap phone plans, or the effect of some amorphous cultural preference. The reality is that during the 1970s and 1980s, when western phone users were adopting answering machines, private phone-lines had limited penetration in China.
China’s economic miracle connected hundreds of millions of users to private phone service, but by the time it arrived to the masses, cell-phones were the default communication device. Since a cell-phone is always at the side of the user, equipped with missed-call functionality and text messaging capacity, a mobile-answering machine makes no sense.
The continued use of voicemail in the west doesn’t make any more sense than it makes in China. It might be justified as a way of staying connected with tech-illiterate grandparents or obstinate techno-phobes, but ultimately, voicemail is a vestigial structure, like the human appendix, now removed from its historical function.
Thanks to rapid economic development in the midst of a world of equally rapid technological change, Chinese internet users are uniquely poised to reach the future faster, whatever that might become. As William Gibson opined, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distribute.”
Techno-Protectionism, or Why Google and Facebook are Banned in China
Adding to China’s percocious internet adoption, China’s protectionist tech-culture provided an open field of sorts for next-generation platforms to proliferate. Whereas next-generation platforms in the west must compete for eyeballs with incumbent services, in China it’s open-season.
The commonplace understanding of the Great Firewall is that China’s ban on western web-services (Facebook, Twitter, instagram) exists for political control — to protect Chinese people from the subversive tweets about the Dalai Lama or inassimilable cultural images of Tank-Man on moments.
This is no doubt the case, but an added and important function of China’s ban is what amounts to a 21st-century neo-protectionist technology policy, as policy that allows Chinese tech firms an uncontested opportunity to develop products for the local market.
“Let a hundred new web services blossom”
Looking at the world’s top social services, it’s clear that China’s decade of tech-market-protectionism has paid significant dividends:
Of the world’s top 19 social platforms, China accounts for six. While it’s tempting to interpret China’s success as a function of raw population size (1.36 billion), this hypothesis is dispelled by a simple comparison with the world’s next largest country, India. India, with a population of 1.25 billion, has no significant domestically developed social platforms, either domestically or internationally.
The old-world concept of protectionism — a tariff and subsidy driven method of regulating imports and exports on commodities like wheat or apples — requires a fundamental reformulation in a world of free digital products. China’s firewall decade is a modern and effective answer. With its closed-internet policy, the CPC has created an environment wherein Chinese companies can dictate the user experience of virtual life, without external noise or competition.
When One App Rules Them All
China’s economic and political history has uniquely enabled a platform like WeChat to flourish. Western VC firms and tech-evangelists celebrate its breadth and success, but their celebrations are marred by a blind-spot, namely the absence of any political critique. WeChat’s proliferation is guaranteed by government protectionism. It would be sensible to expect that in thanks, the platform would offer something back to the CPC. So how exactly does the platform serve the interests of power?
Private and Public Spaces
Social media platforms present varying distributions of the public and the private. Twitter feeds, by default, are public. Their constitutive tweets are available for anyone to read, comment on, repost, or like. The democratizing function of the internet is eminently realized in platforms like Twitter, where individual activists, like DeRay Mckesson, can speak to the world and find amplification in the retweets and comments of others. Further along the public-private spectrum is Facebook, where individuals’ posts are private by default, visible only to friends, or friends-of-friends. Privacy is variable though, and posts can be configured for complete public visibility.
Whether content is public or private, available user-interactions (‘read’, ‘like’, ‘comment’, ‘repost’) also shape the openness of a platform. Whereas Twitter encourages the whole gamut of interactions, Instagram encourages spectatorship over proliferation. Users can read, like, or comment on a post, but they can’t repost. Consequently, Instagram is not a platform for social movements or political organization. More often, it’s a siloed platform of cultural consumption. Nonetheless, anyone can create a publicly-visible Instagram feed, an option that’s unavailable on WeChat.
A Blind-Spot in Sharing
With a platform celebrated for its myriad functions and million embedded apps, it’s surprising to note that the basic sharing or retweeting functionalities of Facebook and Twitter are at worst absent, and at best perverted, on WeChat.
WeChat is a protean platform. Unlike Instagram or Twitter, WeChat contains multiple unique user-experiences, each with their own configuration of private and public user interactions. WeChat users can communicate directly with each other in individual and group chats, like WhatsApp, or scroll through the life-events of their friends in ‘Moments,’ which at first glance resembles a Facebook / Twitter newsfeed. ‘Chat,’ like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Twitter direct messages, takes place squarely in the private-sphere, while ‘moments’ take place in a pseudo-public domain. Thus, ‘moments’ are the site of the political (or its absence), and will be our focus here.
An online network that cleaves to the off-line
Moments is the site of shared content, but what is sharable, and who it’s shared to, is carefully circumscribed. Users can upload their own life-events, through ‘sights’ (short looping GIFs) or captioned photo-galleries.
In a sense, WeChat moments are like an Instagram feed. Users can view a continually-updated stream of content generated by their friends, and like or comment on posts. Yet unlike Instagram, where accounts are public by default, WeChat users can only view the ‘moments’ of their friends. There is no functionality to discover other individuals, and resultantly, WeChat networks are mostly comprised of one’s off-line connections and networks (note, Official Accounts will be discussed below). Whereas Twitter, and increasingly Facebook, thrive on enabling sprawling networks of strangers to connect and engage with each other by enabling publicly discoverable accounts, WeChat restricts it.
Like, comment, but don’t share
In addition to the glaring absence of a search function for other users, WeChat moments lacks the central function of Twitter, the retweet, or the Facebook repost. For user-created posts like sights and photo-galleries, the only interactions available to ‘friends’ are liking and commenting:
The retweet is a central discovery function in Twitter. Without the repost, users are limited to engaging with their existing social network. On Twitter, a friend can retweet an eloquent political quip or an incriminating photo of an authority. Through the friend’s retweet, a user can discover and explore new lines of thought, cynicism and humor. On WeChat, users statically engage their existing networks. WeChat truncates the momentum and potential of social media.
Like, comment, but don’t overhear the comments of others
Further siloing user-experience, users can only read the comments of mutual friends on posts:
- If users X, Y and Z are friends, then X can see all of Y’s likes and comments on person Z’s posts, as well as any responses from Person C.
- If users X and Z are friends, and Y and Z are friends, but X and Y are NOT friends, then X cannot see any of Y’s likes or comments on Z’s posts
John and Jim and Nancy are friends. John and Carolyn are friends, but Carolyn is not friends with Jim or Nancy. If John posts a photo of a sunny beach on WeChat, Jim can see Nancy’s comments, but Jim cannot see Carolyn’s comments. Jim will never discover new contacts on WeChat through mutual friends. Neither Twitter, Facebook nor Instagram implement this functionality, and that makes them open. Twitter users can discover and create new networks by observing and following chains of commentary. The absence of a public-record of commentary on WeChat is telling.
In sum, WeChat restricts the conventional avenues to connecting with strangers around shared interests or causes.
Sharing and Official Accounts
Despite the abovestated limitations, there is one avenue to sharing on WeChat moments, the Official Account post. While at first glance the Official Account post contradicts our critique of WeChat as a closed platform, under closer examination, the exact opposite proves to be true.
An Official Account is a publishing page created by an entity like a brand (Nike, Starbucks) or a content publisher (Vice Media, Buzzfeed, The Financial Times). WeChat users can subscribe to Official Accounts for regular posts received via push-notifications.
Official Account posts are media-rich, and can contain longform articles, videos and photo galleries. Most notably, users can share Official Account posts on their own moments. Further, friends can like an Official Account post, comment on it, and exceptionally, share it on their own feed:
Why are Official Accounts posts sharable, while user-generated content isn’t?
As stated above, Official Accounts are distinguished from user accounts, insofar as Official Accounts are owned by brands or other registered entities. In distinction from Facebook Pages, establishing an Official Account is a bureaucratically-restrictive process. Organizations are required to submit a
- Chinese ID
- A Chinese mobile phone number
- A Chinese business license
- And a Chinese organization code
In addition to the required documentation, Official Accounts must agree to abide by a content policy that prohibits politically contentious posts, pornography, and other undesirable material. Accounts found to be in violation of WeChat’s terms of service can be suspended with impunity. With WeChat’s stringent verification process, an account suspension offers significant leverage over Official Accounts. Consequently, Official Accounts are self-censored by the threat of state power.
While sharable, Official Account posts offer more the illusion of freedom than freedom itself. The free field of social sharing is unconditionally limited to sources of information that comply with the status quo.
The Sin of Omission
The heady celebration of WeChat that’s unfolded over the last year is not without justification. As the platform celebrates its fifth birthday, it has evolved into a key arbiter of virtually all the social interactions (work, love, friendship) among the majority of the population of the largest country in the world.
Before we jump on the bandwagon, it’s important to remind ourselves that WeChat recapitulates authoritarian rule. For a platform with literally millions of unique functions, the absence of the democratizing function of Twitter and Facebook is telling.