What WeChat is telling us about how we chat

Thoughts about future communication

Imagine the world has only 24 people. 2 of them will be using WeChat.

“Add me on WeChat!” All my Chinese friends nagged me as they heard I would be going to Beijing. “Okay, okay”, I yielded, having done Google search (yes, Google, not Baidu)

That search revealed how much I’ve been living in the jungle: 700 million people are using WeChat worldwide. Assuming the world is roughly 7 billion people, that means one in every ten has it. What is more astonishing is that there are only about 3 billion people on Earth who has Internet! Almost one in four of those online chitchat using WeChat.

When an app is used at that scale, the app designers have a tremendous power as they can shape how we interact with the app. We think we “use” a technology, but it is almost always the opposite. As Melvin Kranzberg once quipped, “ Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral”.

Case in point: the default screen once you start a conversation with someone is not text, as we are very used to with other texting apps. It is voice messaging, as you see in the “Hold To Talk” bar.

Mixed media chat with texts, voice and even GIFs. Also look at the bottom: default mode is Voice (“Hold to talk”)

Clearly, WeChat engineers must have done a lot of testing before making this decisions, and the number of voice messages through its network must have skyrocketed afterwards.
As I stepped back into the Asian world from the US of A at Beijing airport, I felt a kind of reverse cultural shock, which happens when I’m so out of sync with what is supposed to be “my original culture”. Usually in a phone call, people would hold the phone to their ear and speak to the mic. Instead I saw an intriguing scene at the airport: a lady pressed the record button, held the phone in front of her with two hands, spoke into it, stopped, looked at the phone again. Then she switched to another app, checked quickly, came back to WeChat after about 10 seconds to listen to the voice reply from her husband (or friend?) Then the cycle repeat.

In the future, will people have fewer continuous conversations and more of this kind of exchange? Let’s postpone our judgment of whether it is good or bad and think about what it may imply: people can now have multiple good voice conversations at the same time. They might even curate the voices of each other. Think about how you often tell a friend “I just have a conversation with someone about this very same thing.” Guess what? Now we can give that past conversation even more life by bringing it directly into the current conversation. We weave our social, emotional and intellectual life into this larger stream of human consciousness. Every conversation we have can really be a part of a larger conversation.

Another implication is the greater expressiveness of this new form of communication. I know friends who don’t like texting because they feel that written words cannot convey all the nuances of face-to-face conversations. I wonder how they respond to SnapChat, voice messages and now Facebook Day feature. In addition to being more expressive, voice messaging is obviously much faster than typing.

I drew this graph to show Olivia, a new Chinese friend I met on the airplane.

In a world that seems to be moving faster and faster, Talking & Reading will soon dominate. Many people organize their thoughts as they talk, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to listen to the whole rambling if we care mostly about the main points. Reading the transcript is much better.

Lo and behold, Olivia showed me a powerful transcript function within WeChat that can convert a voice message into written text with remarkable accuracy. It only worked for Chinese now; I don’t know if Tencent (the giant company behind WeChat) planned to extend it to English.

WeChat voice transcript — really accurate. For an English equivalent, you’d have to pay for the app Voxer (voxer.com)

What does this new way of communication imply?

First, the ability to organize thoughts into a coherent whole, let alone an interesting one, will become more and more useful. As humans, we don’t only look for main points; we also want to resonate. We want to hear stories. As Jonathan Gottschall once wrote, ‘We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.’

Combining that desire with our preference for more instant and short bites of information means whoever can pack powerful stories in small chunks will be a huge advantage. Who will be best for that? Human and machine work together. Technology can help with gathering interesting tidbits, sorting and filtering them so that we are freed up to tinker, to mix n match. Think of BuzzFeed: I’m not a big fan of it, but I can see why it is becoming such a giant these day, with 770 employees since 2014. It allows people to create more. It is also very addictive to scroll through these listicles with moving funny GIFs.

Second, in the near future communication will become even more mixed; message will contain voices and texts and laughing cat GIFs. Perhaps it is happening already. There will be so much more potential for creative mix & match. Who will benefit? Those who embrace the change. To know where the most potential is, look no further than young couples — who else have that much energy and passion to communicate? They can engage into the endless stream of each other even more.

Does that mean writing and listening will become the lost art of communication? Perhaps. But remember that just like real arts, the rarer these slower forms are, the more valuable they may become. As humans, we all want to be heard fully, not just extracted for the main points. We also yearn to be part of a journey through well-written and captivating stories. In the age of information abundance, quality becomes even more important. We skim so that we can quickly find the gem on which we can lavish our undivided attention. As of now, technology has made the first task of “finding the gem” much easier by algorithm that delivers and recommends exactly what we want to see. Nevertheless, it is still our responsibility to cultivate our attention: no matter how great the content is, if we are not mentally present to enjoy and engage with it, we will not get a lot out of the experience. It is like eating while we are unwell; no gourmet can make up for a healthy appetite. That will take much longer, but it is a worthy endeavor to get what we truly want.

I hope this sparks some thoughts, and I look forwards to your sharing. Feel free to drop me a note at g.khuyen [at] gmail [dot] com.