WeChat: A growing digital giant in internet transformation

Figure 1. “WeChat Retail Growth Plan Drives Digital Transformation”. Image: PRNewswire, Licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Introduction

Rapid developments of technology and its consequent impacts on digital culture have caused a huge transformation in the ways people live, communicate, socialize, travel and work. One such transformation in communication and socialization has been caused by WeChat, Chinese multi-purpose messaging, social media and mobile payment application developed by Tencent. WeChat has led to a revolutionary change by transforming social connections in China and developing digital business through an easy accessible user-friendly application. WeChat is the most successful elastic and multi-dimensional social media application that provides a number of services including messaging, information sharing and payment. (Yu et al., 2017). In this essay I will explore how WeChat has led to a new way people live, work and communicate with each other. The impacts of WeChat in digital transformation will also be critically analysed through the lens of economics, politics and social culture.

 

Let’s chat: What is WeChat?

China is speedily shifting from relying on international communications technologies toward evolving and creating the innovative approaches on its own in recent decades, as well as promoting domestic applications and platforms such as WeChat and Taobao (Harwit, 2019). WeChat, as one of the most successful social media applications in China, is flourishing in nowadays global media and communication industry. WeChat, as a newly-emerged social media platform, provides multiple services for users that could cover almost all aspects of people’s everyday life (Yu et al., 2017). In contrast with the existing traditional media sites like Facebook and Twitter, WeChat not merely has unique functions of communication and social interactions but also offers other services such as WeChat Pay, games and mini programs (Ibid.) On account of WeChat has introduced multiple novel features and functions to media users, it is now playing a dominant role in today’s digital media world.

 

Figure 2. “WeChat has laid the foundations for stellar growth at Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings”. Image: Lau Ka-kuen, Licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Background and development of WeChat

WeChat was first launched by Tencent Holding Limited, a Shenzhen-based Chinese multinational company in January of year 2011 as a text-messaging platform (Montag et al., 2018; Deng and Chen, 2018; Harwit, 2019). Tencent Holdings, the owner of WeChat, is a Chinese technology behemoth that values more than $500 billion by the middle of May this year (Iqbal, 2020). Other products developed by this company include messaging apps (QQ) and games (Arena of Valour). Tencent holds a variety of stakes in many international applications as well including Snapchat and Riot Games (Ibid.).

In the six years since WeChat’s release, it has grown rapidly and nearly 850 million users has been attracted (Statista, as cited in Peng, 2017, p. 265). The thrive of WeChat has brought huge profits for the Tencent Company, the owner of WeChat. However, as WeChat was originally released as a text-messaging application, users have quickly gotten tired of simple communication. In addition, some of the messaging functions of WeChat are kind of similar with its counterparts such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Functions like voice and text messaging, video and voice calls as well as sharing posts and photos are also offered by Facebook, Skype and Instagram. Comparing with WhatsApp, the largest competitor of WeChat, they both provide unlimited voice and video call services and a wide variety of emoticons for representing users’ states of mind (Montag et al., 2018). WeChat has thus developed new creative features so as to become more competitive among these competitors and attract more active users. As WeChat has evolved tremendously since then, the functions of social media communication merely represent one featured part of the application. As such, WeChat should be seen as a multipurpose platform rather than simply being a social communication tool (Ibid.).

As a user-friendly application, WeChat offers a variety of on demand services. Users all over the world are able to communicate, play games, travel, shop, make payment and share life status and thoughts through this easy accessible platform. Mini programs in WeChat cover almost all aspects of individuals’ life, which are seen as mini apps of various services and companies that run completely within WeChat (Iqbal, 2020). For instance, users could call taxis through the mini program of Didi, which is a vehicle for hire platform like Uber. Therefore, people are able to access to almost all kinds of services without downloading other apps, which can save storage space for their phone. In terms of Tencent’s involvement and development in gaming, games are also added into WeChat mini programs. The video linked below further explains the functions and types of mini programs in details, which could help us understand more about the usages and purposes of the mini programs.

Figure 3. “What Are Mini Programs?”. Video: KrASIA, All rights Reserved. From https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEObQ8LdyEM

With these unique functions and features, WeChat has currently become the most important cutting-edge mobile application in China with over a billion monthly active users (Tencent, as cited in Montag et al., 2018, p. 1). The rise of WeChat has brought the transformation of digital society and marketization of networked business.

Online ecosystem of WeChat

An digital ecosystem is the network of a platform that builds a community about its business and products, which involves almost all the stakeholders such as owners, users, partners and competitors (Sarkar, 2008). The shareholders of the platform promote the development in a great extent. All these subjects involved in the ecosystem impact and support each other through technological innovations in order to accomplish digital transformation (Martin & Dwyer, 2019).

The diagram created below is the ecosystem map of WeChat created basing on the contents discussed in the above section.

Figure 4. “Ecosystem map of WeChat”. Image: Author. All rights Reserved

Transformative effects brought by WeChat

Digital transformation is a process of continuous advancement and change for entities as well as the whole digital society driven by technology (Ebert and Duarte, 2018). WeChat has led to a significant transformation in today’s digital world that largely changed individuals’ lives in social, cultural, economic and political aspects by developing digital innovations.

Social and Cultural aspect

To view the transformative impacts from the social and cultural perspective, WeChat has introduced new ways for people to work, live and socialize. Some new features and functions developed by WeChat aim to encourages users’ engagement in the online community by “motivating their desire for attentive affects” (Peng, 2017, p.265). The active users in the early stage of WeChat are mostly from the younger generation, who have led to the rapid growth of digital network usage in China (Lin & Li, as cited in Ibid.). On account of the diverse lifestyle and high proportion usage of the youth on WeChat, an online civil society is thus established for keeping contact with families and friends as well as making new friends. For example, WeChat facilitates individuals to communicate and make friends with people nearby with the help of GPS by introducing a feature called “Look Around” (Harwit, 2017). Other two innovative features added by WeChat after the success of “Look Around” are “Shake” and “Drift Bottle” (Zhou, as cited in Harwit, 2017, p.315), who have similar functions with “Look Around” but with a more interesting way of communication as “Drift Bottle” simulate the scene in reality and the process of shaking phone is quite fun.

Except for facilitating connections among people, the functions of mini programs has transformed the way people live and travel. A range of services are offered by mini programs, which can also be seen as mini apps within WeChat. Companies and platforms such as Didi, Meituan and Ctrip has settled in WeChat, which provides services for taxis, food delivery, hotels and restaurants booking. People can also looking up for menus while cooking through the Lontong mini program, a cookbook application. WeChat mini programs can be used to store ID cards and transportation cards as well (Iqbal, 2020). While taking buses or undergrounds, people just need to scan the code from their phones so that it is not necessary for them to carry any cards with them. All they need are mobile phones. We can see that the services of WeChat have covered almost all aspects of our everyday life and changed the way we live, however to think critically, it will be very dangerous that if someone lose her/his phone as all the valuables and private information are displayed on the phone.

Figure 5. “WeChat Mini Programs: expanding your brand’s influence in China and beyond”. Image: Datawords Group, Licensed CC BY 2.0

Economics aspect

Referring to Peng (2017), Social media sites like WeChat strengthen digital business governance to help network companies (Tencent) in making profits through the process of transforming users’ day-to-day works and lives. Users can acquire a range of information by following the public accounts in WeChat. There are large numbers of brands, universities, organizations and even government department utilize WeChat public accounts as a medium for transmitting messages to target audiences and communicating with users (Montag et al., 2018). By using functions in WeChat, they have changed their traditional business models.

In addition, sharing economy concept is involved in the way WeChat transforming users’ lifestyle. Sharing economy is defined as a form of production and consumption that is built basing on collaborative ownership (Belk, 2010). Mobike, a WeChat mini program, adapts this concept and brings connivences for users by bike sharing. People can use the bike wherever there is one and park them in any visible places by only paying 1 RMB.

Apart from the sharing economy, WeChat has also led to the transformation of traditional economic model by developing the WeChat Pay function. WeChat Pay allows people to pay for almost all online and most of the offline shopping and services, which significantly change the traditional means of trade and exchange. Although this new payment method has brought connivences, there are risks existing as this may lead to the monopoly of digital business in the entire economic market.

Figure 6. “WeChat App”. Image: arunrafi, Licensed CC BY 2.0

Political aspect

The owner of WeChat, Tencent, is a conglomerate that is closely related to the Chinese government (Harwit, 2017). The growth of WeChat has caused worries by several dissidents and politicians that users’ actions will be real time monitored by security officials through the location and voice/video call functions provided by WeChat (Chen, 2018). Lots of users as well as the authorities in China concern that there are hidden threats of users’ privacy been exposed to surveillance system (Ibid.). Some statistics show that quite a few crimes are committed through WeChat. Owing to the functions of “Look Around” and “Shake” enable greeting from strangers close by, criminals can easily find the accurate location and information of users (Ibid.). Besides, the recent ban on TikTok and WeChat by the US government will cause a significant decline of users outside China, which will largely influence people’s daily communication. Digital medias could be used as tools of political contest.

Conclusion

WeChat has become the one of leading social media applications in nowadays’ digital world that triggered internet transformation. People’s lifestyle, companies’ business models and government’s regulations has been changed largely through the innovative features and functions of WeChat. It has impacted the economic, social, cultural and political development by leading to a new approach people live, work, travel and communicate with each other.

 

References

Harwit, E. (2017). WeChat: social and political development of China’s dominant messaging app. Chinese journal of communication, 10(3), 312-327. doi:10.1080/17544750.2016.1213757

Chen PC. (2018). The Development Path of WeChat: Social, Political and Ethical Challenges. In YC. Kim & PC. Chen (Eds.), The Digitization of Business in China (pp. 127-152). Palgrave Macmillan Asian Business Series. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Montag, C., Becker, B., & Gan, C. (2018). The Multipurpose Application WeChat: A Review on Recent Research. Frontiers in Psychology, 9(2247), 1-8. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02247

Yu, X., Zhao, T., & Tong, S. (2017). Development Report on China’s WeChat in 2014. Development Report on China’s New Media, 63-78. doi:10.1007/978-981-10-3683-5_4

Harwit, E. (2019). WeChat and the Growth of China’s Indigenous Internet. East-West Center, 1-2. doi:10.2307/resrep24993

Yang, S., Chen, S., & Li, B. (2016). The Role of Business and Friendships on WeChat Business: An Emerging Business Model in China. Journal of Global Marketing, 29(4), 174-187. doi: 10.1080/08911762.2016.1184363

Peng, Y. (2017). Affective networks: how WeChat enhances Tencent’s digital business governance. Chinese Journal of Communication, 10(3), 264-278. doi: 10.1080/17544750.2017.1306573

John, N. A. (2016). Sharing Economies. In The age of sharing (pp. 69–97). Polity.

Ebert, C., & Duarte, C. H. C. (2018). Digital Transformation. IEEE Software, 35(4), 16-21. doi: 10.1109/MS.2018.2801537

Martin, F., & Dwyer, T. (2019). Sharing News Online Commendary Cultures and Social Media News Ecologies (1st ed. 2019. ed.). Springer International Publishing.

Belk, R. (2010). Sharing. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(5), 715-734. doi:10.1086/612649

Sarkar, C. (2008). What is an Online Ecosystem? Retrieved from http://ecosystemwatch.com/2008/10/what-is-an-online-ecosystem.html

Iqbal, M. (2020). WeChat Revenue and Usage Statistics (2020). Retrieved from https://www.businessofapps.com/data/wechat-statistics/

Victoria Luo
About Victoria Luo 3 Articles
A student in USYD majoring Digital Cultures and International Relations. A guitarlist, dancer, and vocalist.