In China, WeChat has not only changed people’s communication habits, but brought huge social transformations.

As the most popular instant messaging software in China, WeChat brings far more influence than a chat tool. It deeply influences and changes the way of contemporary people's life, the way people receive and send information, the way they pay money, the way they consider privacy and identity...

"wechat-5-1" by Sinchen.Lin is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Let’s chat——WeChat

  WeChat is an instant messaging platform with the largest number of Chinese users in the world. In modern China, WeChat has replaced traditional messages and phone calls and become the most commonly used online communication tool for contemporary Chinese people. Today’s WeChat has become a lifestyle and infrastructure. In the social/economic/political field, it has brought about huge social changes. Hence, this essay will be divided into 5 main parts, discussing the transformation brought by WeChat. Section 1 will introduce the major information about WeChat, section 2 would exam the developing history of WeChat, and section 3 will have a discussion on the WeChat business model, section 4 would consider WeChat within the Tencent ecosystem. At last, section 5 will be analyzing how WeChat transferred people’s relationship with information, money, privacy, and identity.

WeChat? Communication tool or Social media platform?

  WeChat is the biggest online instant communicating tool in China. By the first quarter of 2015, WeChat had covered more than 90% of smartphones in China (Chen, 2020) The main function is sending text messages, videos, pictures. WeChat provided a combination of interaction between old friends and strangers (Yu, 2017). Users were asked to be accessible with their mobile phone contacts and QQ (an older messaging tool), try to build the users’ real-world interpersonal network. While WeChat also supporting new interpersonal relations. For strangers, the “Shake” and “drift bottle” feature also allowed them to meet random strangers via WeChat. Although the core service is instant communicating, WeChat is more than just a chatting tool today (Tang, 2020). It is an application that integrates social networking, entertainment, gaming, online payments together, becoming an essential medium between individuals and social relations, individuals, and internet services.

Here is a Wall street journal clip explaining what is WeChat.

History of WeChat’s ——The Replacer of QQ

  Before the launch of WeChat, QQ was the most popular instant messaging tool in China (You, 2014). Around 2000, with the development and popularisation of desktop computers at home, QQ has entered every family. Since 2011, Tencent started transferred its pool of QQ users to WeChat. WeChat aims to replace SMS on mobile phones, allowing users to send messages with low traffic costs and reducing their network costs. As Tang (2020) stated, in the past, text messages, no matter how long or short, can cost as much as $0.01 (1 yuan). While in 2011, 3G was initially developing, WeChat chooses to use mobile data to send information, and it could send about 100 messages for $0.01 (1 RMB). Hence, The substantial saving of communication costs is an important reason origin WeChat succes. After Tencent’s launch of WeChat, at least 20 percent of SMS users quickly moved to the WeChat platform for communication.

Why did WeChat succeed (Business model)?

“WeChat cupcake” by liewcf is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

  Excellent software functions and special circumstances are crucial to the success of the WeChat business model. As Yu (2017) stated, the rise of WeChat has much to do with the historical background and national policies. At the National Conference of China in 2010, three important directions for developing telecommunication, broadcasting, and TV network were put forward. WeChat, as a newly launched application, is supported by the Chinese government, under the background of developing the domestic Internet economy. The most direct influence is that WeChat acquired the ability to access telephone numbers, bound to the user’s mobile phone verification, which leads that user’s initial WeChat friends circle comes from the phone number of the people around them. It can be said that the policies helped WeChat complete the most needed business model——attracting users pool. After the establishment of a complete and basic user group and usage habits, a series of extended applications such as QR code and WeChat payment further make WeChat irreplaceable.

WeChat ecosystem

  WeChat has strong ecosystem relations, it is a core social/internet service owned by Tencent, one of the largest internet companies in China.

   As a hypermedia application, WeChat facing many competitors in different aspects. As social software, WeChat’s competitors are social platforms such as What’s App, Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, and Instagram. However, due to the software ban in mainland China, WeChat’s competitors in the mainland market only come from QQ of the same company. However, Tencent cleverly differentiates WeChat and QQ’s positioning from its target group. In terms of finance, WeChat’s biggest rivals in the Chinese market are Alipay and apple pay.

  The most important supplier of WeChat is the users themselves. With the effective participation from a large number of real users, WeChat provides a real and effective interpersonal network, enabling users to actively participate in the communication services.

  For regulators, WeChat is mainly regulated by users and the Chinese government. The State Internet Information Office (SIIO) now manages Internet information and content and supervises the Internet nationwide (Tang, 2017). monitor WeChat for sensitive political issues, pornography, and violence against teenagers.

Here is the diagram of the WeChat ecosystem.

Figure 1: WeChat ecosystem map. created by the Author.

How does WeChat transform our using of the internet?

   As mentioned earlier, WeChat was originally designed as an instant messaging software, but today it has successfully become an indispensable tool for most Chinese people. The success of WeChat is inseparable from Tencent’s positioning on WeChat and the development of multi-functions. As Yu (2017) said, WeChat is a small, simple, but powerful hypermedia application. It mixed the message function of QQ, voice message of Talkbox, the social network of Path, sharing, and stranger social relation of Instagram. In further, WeChat started to develop 2 function that establishes dominant position——scan the QR code. In the early stage of the popularization of smart screen mobile phones and 3G network, these two functions helped WeChat successfully become an application connecting users to various network services, and changed Chinese people’s way of living.

QR code and WeChat pay——way of  interacting with information and money

“_S3_0998” by Fortune Conferences is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  WeChat uses QR codes to connect the physical world to web services quickly, allowing users to scan nearby businesses or personal information. As Juan stated (2009), the QR code is ubiquitous in China and has become an essential tool today. It helped the advertisement industry rapidly transfers to a new media platform. For many companies, promoting WeChat QR codes allows users to hear about brands and companies in their daily social circles. Behind a simple QR code, it represents thousands of real Chinese market users. For instance, When the Japanese brand Uniqlo entered the Chinese market, it made use of WeChat to promote and achieved great success. The brand’s “Style Your Life” campaign helped Uniqlo more than double its number of WeChat followers, from 400,000 when The campaign launched to 1 million when it finished six months later, And led to a 30 percent increase in sales of key apparel (Donald, 2015). While On the other hand, users’ lives are also facilitated by QR codes and they can quickly obtain various internet information. It has changed the way merchants advertise, the way official information is released, and the way consumers receive information. As wang (2018) stated, the growth of the Internet and mobile phones has been the shift of advertising from traditional media to new online stores, no matter the political newspapers or commercial advertisements in the subway. Since 2014, online advertising has outpaced traditional advertising (Guo, 2014).

  While the QR Code not only changed the way of participating in commercial information but also changed the government official information publishing way. One of the most direct examples of its use was during the 2020 outbreak when every province in China published a “health code” on WeChat to track the movements of every citizen and help determine their level of risk in health condition.

  And in the financial aspect, under the support of the QR function, WeChat payment also quickly become the giant of Chinese mobile market payment and changed Chinese people’s paying way. According to a network media group report, by mobile payment today 2018, WeChat payments has more than 1 billion users in a country of 1.4 billion people, while payment features have more than 900 million monthly active users. WeChat payments have become 60% left, of all the Chinese people are using payment tools. It has also changed people’s habit of using real money for a long time, allowing people to get used to money being “electronically” stored in WeChat and being able to buy anything with just a mobile phone when they go out.

  The use of QR code is a key technology for WeChat, which makes WeChat no longer just a social tool, but irreplaceable intermediary connecting users and brand network services in contemporary China.

Online expression—— way of understanding privacy and identity.

“Data Security Breach” by Visual Content is licensed under CC BY 2.0

  In addition to its transformative impact on the exchange of information, the use of WeChat has also led to a broad transformation of modern privacy issues, government censorship, and personal identity. As an instant messaging tool, WeChat’s concerns about users’ privacy and the government’s censorship intervention have always been controversial. In 2018,  financial review published a report saying that WeChat was subject to both “censorship and surveillance”, especially on political topics. Given that “Chinese laws and regulations strictly control the Internet,” any of WeChat’s privacy protections would be legally and politically difficult (Grigg, 2018).

  The WeChat does not provide end-to-end encryption, the messaging system has the possibility of “back door” access, and it does not publish transparency reports on government requirements. That is, a user’s conversations and phone records with anyone on WeChat are likely to be accessed by Tencent or the relevant government. In such an environment, the privacy of WeChat users has been pushed to a dangerous point, while the issue is, people are increasingly used to giant tech companies and censors having access to vast amounts of information about themselves. But to refuse to use, to uninstall WeChat, is to some extent difficult to survive in the modern world. As Pickard (2019) Stated, the policy issues raised by the Internet are entirely new, the latest iteration in a series of historical conflicts between technology companies, government regulators, and the public. It is also a conflict between several different ideological positions

  WeChat also transformed the understanding of identity. In the past, identity was often understood as something fixed and difficult to change, such as nationality, gender, race. The WeChat cyberspace, however, provides an opportunity for people to have a “customized identity” and expression in relation to others. People can decide their profile picture, nickname, and the content to post in their ‘moments’ (blogs that friends can see). Such content has become a way for people to express their “identity”. In WeChat, Identity goes from a fixed, unchanging, rooted thing in the body to a “project” that can be artificially altered and shaped (Marwick, 2010). The customization of social media identity is indeed a process of identity reconstruction. WeChat enhances the flexibility of the identity concept. It is partly based on people’s real identities when they are offline but is sometimes artificially selected and embellished.

Summary

In general, as an application in 2011 became popular with the rise of 3G and smartphones. WeChat has accumulated a large user pool and become the largest instant messaging tool and social platform. Its development has brought about a huge transformation, especially in Chinese society. QR code has changed the way people receive and use information, WeChat payments opened the way to electronic money and changed the way people paid in cash. On the other hand, is also brought hugely controversial in its impact on privacy and on censorship, and identity transformation in the electronic age.

 


Reference List

Cheng S. (2020) The Big Time for WeChat Business: “Moments” and “Wealth Dream”. In: Liu S., Wang J. (eds) The Internet Society in China. Sociology, Media and Journalism in China. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi-org.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/10.1007/978-981-13-8237-6_2

Doland, A. (2015). How Uniqlo doubled its WeChat followers in China:“Style Your Life” push allowed customers to share fun photos in campaign that tapped into China’s obsession with all things mobile. Advertising Age, 86(16), 24. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.usyd.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/docview/1707635979?accountid=14757

Grigg, A. (2018). WeChat’s privacy issues mean you should delete China’s No. 1 messaging app. Retrieved from: https://www.afr.com/world/asia/wechats-privacy-issues-mean-you-should-delete-chinas-no1-messaging-app-20180221-h0wgct

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Marwick, A. E. (2013). Online Identity. In A Companion to New Media Dynamics (pp. 355–364). Wiley- Blackwell.

Networld Media Group. (2018). Allied Wallet adds WeChat Pay with 900 million active users. Retrieved from https://go-gale-com.ezproxy2.library.usyd.edu.au/ps/i.do?p=ITOF&u=usyd&id=GALE%7CA561214080&v=2.1&it=r

Pickard, V., & Berman, D. E. (2019). The Making of a Movement. In After Net Neutrality: A New Deal for the Digital Age (pp. 69–101). Yale University Press.

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Jinwei He
About Jinwei He 2 Articles
A 3rd-year student in bachelor of arts Gender studies major. Interested in internet culture/pop-culture/queer-culture and music~