How WeChat's unorthodox user data policy exploded creativity and made it the app for everything
In Guangzhou, in southern China, the Canton Tower stands across the Pearl River from the city’s main business district. Built in 2005, the skyscraper consists of two elliptical shapes twisting around each other at 45-degree angles, like a DNA double helix. The iconic structure that punctuates the city’s skyline was China’s tallest building for a brief period until a new construction went up in Shanghai in 2013.
In the shadow of the Canton Tower lies the TIT Creative Industry Zone, a neighborhood dotted with a dozen newly refurbished former industrial buildings. A plaque hanging on the red brick wall outside building #84 explains that it used to be a textile factory in the 1950s, then a military building in the 1960s and 1970s, and was repurposed back for civilian use in the mid-1970s. Its penultimate tenant was a metalworking shop that supplied the local auto industry.
Inside, there is nothing to suggest that the place was once a poorly lit shop floor with exposed lightbulbs and deafening noise. There are no machines that could churn out metal widgets. The original multi-story structure has been stripped bare. What exists instead is a modern office with an open layout and white furniture. An atrium floods the interior with natural sunlight. Potted plants, toys, stuffed animals, and beanbags are scattered throughout the lounge areas. Young men and women wearing hoodies, designer sneakers, and angular spectacles wheel across the floor on ergonomic desk chairs like those made famous by Herman Miller, except that these are, of course, copies made in China. At the company’s café and restaurant, people pay by tapping on their mobile phone. Credit cards and cash have all but receded into a bygone era. The cashless, cardless transactions are the direct result of WeChat’s foray into electronic commerce. Building #84 and three neighboring buildings make up the headquarters of WeChat—China’s largest messaging app.
When Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia (CLSA) wrote, “If WhatsApp is worth $19B, then WeChat’s worth at least $60B.” Because WeChat is privately held, any estimation of its true value would be, by definition, purely speculative. But it doesn’t hurt that its parent company, Tencent, surpassed Alibaba in 2017 to become China’s, as well as Asia’s, most valuable company. Valued at more than $300 billion, Tencent is ranked alongside the best of corporate America, including General Electric ($260 billion), IBM ($165 billion), and Intel ($170 billion). An early investor in Snapchat, Tencent also bought a 5 percent stake in Silicon Valley electric-vehicle maker Tesla in April 2017.
As with all things China, the most astounding aspect of WeChat lies in its rapid ascent. Skeptics dismiss WeChat as merely a Chinese WhatsApp or iMessage. Many outside the country may not have even heard of the service. Still, there are 938 million monthly active WeChat users, a number larger than the entire population of Europe, let alone that of the United States. So, it came as an additional surprise when Juliet Zhu, head of marketing at WeChat, reminded me that the size of the user base “doesn’t tell the whole story. You need to count engagement.” WhatsApp, for instance, has more than 1.2 billion users worldwide. Facebook—WhatsApp’s parent company since 2014—has over 2 billion users. But to Juliet, WeChat has proven itself to be more enticing, for more than one third of its users spend four hours or more per day on WeChat. By contrast, users average thirty-five minutes on Facebook, twenty-five minutes on Snapchat, fifteen minutes on Instagram, and one minute on Twitter.
How does WeChat capture so many eyeballs and such long stares? By enabling end-users to be creative, and doing it in a uniquely Chinese way, with engineers focusing as much on user experience as developing new tools for third parties to invent new features on their own.
In The World Is Flat, published in 2007, Thomas Friedman describes how the Internet transcends national boundaries and narrow ideologies by bringing billions of people online. In reality, the Internet has made the world anything but flat. The online world is still a rugged landscape with cloistered communities and echo chambers. The Beijing government, for example, has long warded off foreign websites it deems suspicious. Because of widespread Internet policing and mysterious censorship practices—collectively known as the Great Firewall— you won’t spot Google, Twitter, YouTube, or Facebook in the Middle Kingdom.
In their place, a slew of apps that initially bore some resemblance to their Western counterparts have evolved into entirely different species. Western companies have long been accustomed to mobile advertising. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Snapchat have amassed copious user data to fine-tune ever more powerful algorithms and to help advertisers better target end-consumers. But in China, storing user data could pose a political risk so high that local firms have chosen to find other ways to get consumers to pay, either by charging transaction fees or through in-app purchases—why mine data when customers would pay directly for services? Because consumers across the world have vastly different habits even when using similar technologies, tech giants also resemble a collection of zoological species with functional features highly adapted to their local environments. Companies must specialize as they fight over and protect their market shares.
Take mobile payment as an example. In 2013, WeChat debuted its first payment system—WeChat Pay. One hugely popular feature is the “red envelope,” which lets consumers send virtual packets stuffed with digital cash to families and friends during the Lunar New Year, using their mobile phones. To add a twist to the festive tradition, anyone can preset a fixed amount and distribute it at random to a selected number of recipients. Say you send three thousand yuan to thirty friends; some get bigger hauls than others, leading to grins and cringes all around. It’s part social networking, part gaming, and part casual gambling. Between February 7th and 12th, 2016, some 32 billion red envelopes changed hands, up from 3.2 billion during the same period in the previous year.
Besides sending each other money, WeChat users can also pay utility bills and invest in wealth funds. WeChat’s parent company, Tencent, had invested billions of dollars in Didi Chuxing (China’s Uber) and Meituan-Dianping (China’s Groupon) so that people could order rides or shop for group deals without ever leaving the app. In recent years, WeChat has expanded further, including an impressive list of traditional retailers—McDonald’s, KFC, 7-Eleven, Starbucks, Uniqlo, and many other well-established names, well beyond the countless mom- and-pop stores that have long embraced WeChat Pay. In describing this social and economic phenomenon in China, the New York Times wrote, “cash is rapidly becoming obsolete”.
Today, shaking one’s phone via WeChat is a popular way to find new friends who are also users. Waving it in front of a television allows it to recognize the current program and gives viewers the opportunity to interact. WeChat has effectively rolled Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Zynga all into one. Rather than being a stand-alone messaging app, WeChat is an indispensable mobile tool for booking doctors’ appointments, settling hospital bills, filing police reports, reserving restaurant tables, accessing banking services, holding video conferences, playing games, and much more. To fuel the growth of this monster app, self-reliance would never be enough. WeChat needs to enable users to be creative, far more aggressively than Google and Facebook, to develop new services that run on top of its social media platform.
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