Shaking It Up with WeChat

Shaking It Up with WeChat
By Qi Chen

When I ran into a childhood friend from China last week, she asked if I had Weixin. “Why don’t I just text you?” I asked, because I had her number. “No, just talk to me on Weixin,” she replied. This is when I realized how big Weixin, the mobile chatting app also known as WeChat internationally, has become.As of January 2013, WeChat had 300 million registered users. The app was launched in 2011 by Chinese tech giant Tencent and remained mainly in China, but in the last 12 months it has rapidly grown internationally. When I tested the “Shake” feature in the app, which allows me to find users in the world who are also shaking their phones in order to add them as friends, I found a lady from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Another shake gave me a man from the United Arab Emirates. A third time, Ghana.

 

What WeChat offers, and what similar East Asian mobile apps like KakaoTalk (Korea) and LINE (Japan) facilitate, is the ability to share a complete social media package in a native mobile space. These companies are Over-The-Top (OTT) businesses that use telecom operators’ networks to allow their users to send text, audio and video to each other, using either a cool alias or their real name. Audio has been a hot trend in China, where the second most downloaded iOS app in 2012 was Papa, a photo sharing service that lets the user record a voice message with the photo. WeChat was the third most downloaded app.Even though Facebook is banned in China, it has taken note of the rise of OTT apps. Recently, it also updated its app to allow audio messages.

And Facebook is perhaps right to take the “If you can’t beat them, join them” attitude. The Wall Street Journal reported late last year that Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, which boasts more than 400 million users in China, has seen a decrease in time spent by its users on both the mobile app and website. According to an op-ed piece in the China Daily published in April, Chinese text messaging was down 20 percent in 2012, while phone services dropped 5 percent. WeChat was definitely a factor in the changing social media landscape.

What does this mean to the relatively new users of WeChat in America? It means thinking about mobile social media not just as an extension of a PC-based network, but a completely independent route of communication that is equally capable of providing all your personal branding.

Qi Chen is a multimedia journalist based in New York. He holds a BA in visual studies and is currently completing graduate studies at Columbia University. He is interested in social media interactions between East and West. Follow him on Twitter: @qchenn.