The Globalization vs. Nationalism of Apps

Chat apps are becoming an entry point and key integration for other digital services. LINE, a popular chat app in Japan and Taiwan, employs the use of cute / “kawaii” characters (with a Rilakkuma-like feel) in its Uber/Lyft-like service.

Facebook, Google, Pinterest, YouTube — we think of these apps as having surpassed being American-made, even though we know they primarily originate in Silicon Valley. That’s because they are so ubiquitous globally.

But like a conspicuous tourist wearing socks with crocs in front of the Eiffel Tower (hah), are there apps we carry with us on our smartphones that tell others where we’re from? Is our usage out of place in certain contexts? Are apps now part of our cultural identity?

In retail apps, this is a no-brainer. People will interact more with sites and apps of places they frequently shop at, that are available in their region. But what about chat apps, something nearly anyone can make, that can be easily translated and tend to have similar functionality?

A 2015 breakdown. In the U.S., Facebook Messenger is dominant, but it’s only 25% in Japan.

When you look at a breakdown of chat apps worldwide, it’s clear that there are ones that are globalized — particularly What’s App and Facebook Messenger — and ones that are nationalized.

Wechat is the swiss army knife of mobile apps. Chat, video call, pay friends and street vendors, order services and give reviews, share a feed of images / text similar to Facebook — you name it. The Chinese market is unique though in that many “globalized” versions of these apps are blocked nationwide. Many Chinese alternatives have been perceived as knockoff apps.

While the differences are subtle, the default WeChat emojis include Chinese cultural staples like red envelopes (symbolic of giving / gifting) and tea drinking over coffee. (Source: Weibo)

While this nationalist view of apps at first looks to be a special case — after all, it doesn’t look like they have much choice— high tech countries with open internet have also seen a rise in apps that are becoming popular tightly within country lines. LINE (Japan, Taiwan) and KakaoTalk (South Korea) being prime examples.

A phone call is a phone call — not a lot to write home about in terms of the base technology differences and features. Where these apps show their differences in market is best shown through their advertising, user experience and stickers / emojis / emoticons. So what’s happening here? Can one “globalized” app rule them all?

We Use & Migrate Apps with Our Tribes

Take a subway ride in Seoul and you’ll the iconic “Ka-KAO” sound pinging around again and again. Talk to most young people in America about their older family member’s Facebook posts and they’ll tell you some stories. These app experiences permeate our lives and communities. And we often start using chat and communication apps through word of mouth and relationships.

Once a few of our peers start using an app, we’re more motivated to try it out. After all, we already have a few people to talk to on it. Or we want to keep up with someone and that’s where they’re posting. Suddenly we’ve invested our own time in the app, and this app now tangibly holds our conversations, feelings, photos and memories.

Overwhelmingly, people know other people who live in the same country and culture — so app popularity by country makes sense, we use apps to communicate with people that we know. American teenagers will likely start using apps that other American teenagers are using. Once a demographic on a platform shifts too far away from a tribe, a migration can occur. Once every 15-year-old’s older family members got a Facebook account, it wasn’t a safe space to talk about the realities of their lives anymore the way they can peer-to-peer, leading to the rise of Snapchat, Tumblr and Instagram.

I’m interested to see how these chat app experiences and connected services will continue to evolve — when local laws and cultural preferences can vary so much, can Facebook or WhatsApp continue to expand?