Will Facebook Become the WeChat of the Western World?
China’s ‘everything app’ has inspired Zuckerberg’s next move.
On March 6, Mark Zuckerberg posted a lengthy note on Facebook with the telling title, ‘A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking’.
In the post, Zuckerberg lays out the company’s mission to move towards encrypted messaging, involving the convergence of its Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp products.
This will allow users to send messages across all three services seamlessly, while each while maintain its own front-end interface.
The news feed will recede into the background, while smaller groups will be able to communicate quickly and securely. Less “town hall” and more “living room”, as Zuckerberg puts it.
The plan is a significant shift from the original Facebook mission.
The social network’s huge popularity has been based on the public sharing of thoughts, images, and videos.
As Zuckerberg notes,
I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.
The runaway success of the Stories format — 150M daily active users on Facebook; 300M on Instagram- will no doubt have contributed to this newly-held confidence in ephemeral media.
However, Facebook has carefully maintained a distinction between its different services up to this point. Instagram and Facebook are, in the minds of many users, entirely separate entities.
In fact, 57% of Americans do not know that Facebook owns Instagram.
To change this strategy so markedly at this juncture is a purposeful move that denotes a new direction for the group.
It is a strategy that has worked exceedingly well up to this point, allowing Facebook to ride out its recent PR crises without damaging the Instagram brand.
The Facebook CEO continues, citing WhatsApp as the company’s core driver of this move towards privacy-centred services. Contained within this statement are important signals of what is to come next:
We plan to build this the way we’ve developed WhatsApp: focus on the most fundamental and private use case — messaging — make it as secure as possible, and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.
The timing is convenient, of course.
These are no longer innocent days for Facebook; the lofty principles they propose to hold are rightly viewed with suspicion, in light of so many data security scandals.
If consumers are increasingly concerned with privacy, it is partly because of Facebook’s actions. To act as the solution to the problem seems blithe, when one considers their part in causing it.
Still, Zuckerberg’s post does reveal some keen insight into the future of online behaviors.
His ambitious vision has a clear precedent: WeChat, the Chinese app with over 1 billion active users.
The WeChat Model: Seamless Ubiquity
It has always been challenging to explain the WeChat phenomenon with reference to Western apps. The ‘WeChat Universe’, as it is appropriately known, plays host to a huge variety of services and products.
It has a messaging service, like WhatsApp; it has a ride-sharing app, like Uber; it has a payment system, like Apple Pay.
WeChat is all of these things, and yet still different. It is a cohesive, all-encompassing ecosystem of services, rather than a fragmented collection of standalone apps.
It sits above the separate products and services; a user is constantly logged in without having to open WeChat each time they want to carry out an action.
Increasingly, WeChat is embedded in physical services like hotel stays, most notably through a partnership with InterContinental Hotels in Shanghai. This will allow WeChat users to do everything from checking in to adjusting the in-room AC through the app.
That seamless ubiquity would no doubt be very appealing to Facebook, as it would retain and engage its user base more securely than their current approach.
The core revenue-driver for WeChat is its highly-profitable stable of games, although advertising continues to gain traction.
Zuckerberg’s proposed changes would move Facebook away from its current ad revenue model and towards other income streams.
In-app purchases, through Ecommerce, games, and videos, will likely be the social network’s new priorities.
There is much to covet within the WeChat Universe from a Facebook perspective, as the latter plans for the next few years of growth.
However, merging its current services offers no guarantee of success for Facebook, as it operates in different markets in a very different consumer climate.
Will the WeChat Model Take Hold in the West?
WeChat has failed to attract a committed user base outside of China so far.
Its main forays into other markets have been driven by Chinese workers and tourists who use the app, which encourages their new connections to download it too. This has been the case in some areas of Africa (particularly South Africa), but has not been enough to usher in mass adoption of the app yet.
A new tourism app has been launched on WeChat to encourage users to visit Auckland, New Zealand, but again the onus is on encouraging action from Chinese consumers.
Estimates put the number of non-China downloads of the app at around 100 million. That is a sizeable number, but not enough to threaten the 2.2 billion users worldwide that Facebook reported for Q3 2018.
Meanwhile, Chinese video app TikTok makes inroads across the world, including in the US where it now has over 100 million downloads.
Facebook’s current setup does leave it vulnerable to the rise of such a competitor, as users can easily migrate from one platform to another.
That is fine, if they are moving from Facebook to Instagram, as many younger users have done. If they move to TikTok, or any other arriviste that may surface in the coming years, that can pose a problem.
Looking at the global charts for app downloads in 2018, it is self-evident that Facebook’s consolidation plans could see it take an insurmountable lead over the competition.
That said, such as assertion assumes that this is what Western users want, or would happily adapt to.
With trust in the tech giants at an all-time low, handing over even more control to Facebook may not be an enticing option.
Moreover, the WeChat model is not necessarily as appealing to consumers in the West as it is in China. When we bear in mind the respective evolutions of WeChat and Facebook, two very different paths are revealed.
WeChat has slowly added new services, making it indispensable in the process. Its own ‘flywheel effect’ has been slow to take hold, an underlying logic that emerges in retrospect.
That sleight of hand is absent from Facebook’s approach, with Zuckerberg deciding to practice what he preaches in a transparent post about transparency.
It is a widely held fallacy that in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ means both ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’.
While that may be a falsehood, its message holds a persistent allure in capitalist society.
For his part, Mark Zuckerberg looks set to proceed from his company’s crisis with his own sense of risk, balanced with sizeable opportunity.
The WeChat example provides a blueprint for his vision of an interconnected, encrypted future.
However, he must first convince his audience to believe in the mission again.