Media around the world has buzzed enough about WeChat’s innovative features, yet few had deconstructed WeChat's success to its basics.
Yan and I were reading the recent Facebook scandal and the consequently #deletefacebook movement, suddenly, our thoughts went wild:
It is no news that WeChat, China’s biggest social app, is invading our privacy too. Will there ever be a #deletewechat movement in China, if so, would we join it?
“No, no way.” - Me.
“Me neither. Just NO.” - Yan.
Shocked by our own firm rejections, we sat down to list out all the “obvious” reasons, aka the many innovative functions that are often praised for WeChat’s popularity. WeChat Wallet, Moment, Official Accounts, Mini-Programs, Red Packet, voice messaging, walkie-Talkie…our list went on and on.
The "traditional" media narrative of WeChat, which emphasizes the app as omnipotent and "beyond just social".
WeChat Wallet is amazingly convenient, but so is Alipay, which is accepted by just as many vendors in the country. Moment is an useful outlet for understanding others’ lives, but it could also dread to a point of over-sharing, making many people, including the two of us, to become less interested. Official Account and the many “self-media” on WeChat can be sources of quality content, but in a world filled with excessive information and fake news, we won’t mind taking a break from them. And the rest on the list? As much as them being fabulous perks, they are not, in the end of the day, what make WeChat irreplaceable in our lives.
Why can't we leave WeChat?
What are we fearing of, why are we willingly surrendering to those fears?
“How many WeChat contacts do you have?” in a moment of ponder, I suddenly thought to ask Yan.
“Let me check…sh*t, I have over 800!”
Among the total 800 contacts currently on my WeChat, there are at least half I’ve never talked to, and at least another 100 that I can’t even recall the real names of. Scrolling through these unfamiliar IDs and profiles, I was struck by the power of WeChat in knowing people, or, more specially, in initiating Guanxi - the rudimentary, nuanced dynamic that bond the Chinese together in networks of personal relationships.
Just consider the below situation:
You are at a dinner party with a bunch of strangers. The person sitting next to you started to initiate conversations. You each introduced your names, jobs and exchanged name cards. You two talked more about mutual interests and even discussed potential partnerships. Everything was going great, but the guanxi between the two of you wasn't officially formed until one of you opened WeChat to ask that one single important last question: “You scan me, or I scan you?” (Referring to WeChat QR code)
In all, literally all Chinese social occasions nowadays, adding WeChat has become the one and only cornerstone for manufacturing interpersonal connections. Without the gesture of scanning each other’s QR code, all the seemingly-enjoyable physical conversations are left with loose ends untied, as the possibility of solid Guanxi is still being denied.
So Yes, my 800-people WeChat contact list might be overcrowded and inefficient considering the proportion of folks that I actually have contact with, but still, I cannot stop scanning more QR codes and adding more people to WeChat. Despite the fact that there are no technical alternatives (QQ is for teenagers, E-mail has never yielded mass popularity among the Chinese population, Weibo is for idol-chasing, gossiping and news updates out of the personal realm), at the end of the day, WeChat beats all by helping to kickstart Guanxi the Chinese way.
“Bye for now, but let's keep in touch on WeChat anyhow!”
“Shit, my phone got stolen on the subway!” the other day, a colleague of us ran into the office while crying, “I didn’t store my groups! What am I going to do now!”
It was at that moment we realized where the power of WeChat truly lies: Groups (群). As much as it being a common feature in most social apps, in the peculiar soil of WeChat, Groups has grown into something that truly bonds the individuals, and molds singular relationships into interwoven webs of social connections. WeChat Groups, in short, has become a reflection of the Chinese society in the digital age.
 Storing groups: a function of Wechat that allows users to save Groups to their contact list.
There is no official statistics over the Chinese usage of WeChat Groups, so Yan and I could only refer to our own life experiences to show you the diverse profile and utility of this feature. We are two working Chinese adults in our mid-20s, and here are some of the Groups we currently have:
- Family/relatives Groups:
Personally, I am currently in three family-related Groups: one consisted by my parents and I, and two for relatives on my mom and dad’s sides respectively. The latter two both contain members across three generations – thanks to elderly-friendly smartphones, my grandparents have turned into devoted WeChat users, obsessively sharing articles and photos in our family Group every day.
My relatives are dispersed in many different cities and countries, and our family groups has done a terrific job in gathering everyone together in an intimate manner that we never felt during the pre-WeChat era. An extra bonus? Endless red packets during festival seasons! (My 82-year-old grandfather once lovingly complained that he was at the brink of going bankrupted because of Red Packets – “WeChat is making me broke!”)
- Work-related Groups:
As long as you are working in China or with the Chinese, chances are you are in at least one work Group on WeChat. They are the ones that you can’t mute (a considering function of WeChat, which allows users to mute some of the chats and eliminate pop-up notifications), can’t delete, and in most cases have to purposely hung to sticky status (again, another very considerate in-app function). They destroy your weekends, break your work-life boundaries, and makes holidays utopian. Unless you have the guts to declare WeChat-disappearance from your boss, otherwise expect endless in-groups “@” that reminds you of your never-ending workloads anytime, anywhere.
Rants aside, we have to admit Groups really do a superb job in boosting productivity and, more importantly, cultivating interpersonal connections. You might have never met with some of the group members you are working on a certain project with, but by adding them as your personal WeChat contacts, instantaneously you are granted entry into a more private dynamic of their lives with the potential to foster personal connections. Doing business in China is all about relationships, and Groups, under the name of work, is the best place to start your relationship-cultivation.
- Old classmates/friends/social organization Groups:
I know we are tossing a lot of things together under this category, but really, what we mean is the kind of Groups that you feel socially belong to yet are not really bothered to engaged with on a regularly basis. Most of these Groups are large in size (at least 20 people) and could be filled with members you are not exactly familiar with. Still, by putting them in mute and only checking occasionally, you get to be posted about the occasional gossips, or even catch some red packets from random acquaintances.
Red packets in action!
But not of all these Groups are “boring” or “useless”. When we asked our Chinese friends what their most-treasured WeChat Groups are, someone showed us a “Sticker-battling” (斗图) Group, where members constantly bash each other with self-made stickers and communicate through these creative visual expressions. From Peppa Pig, Gavin Thomas to Jiang Zemin, Groups like this one have acted as incubators for endless internet memes, providing young Chinese a new language and space for entertainment.
Peppa Pigs, Thomas Gavin and Jiang Zemin - China's hot Sticker Stars, being circulated all around WeChat.
Since 2016, WeChat has gradually taken a stricter approach over the management of WeChat Groups. Apart from restricting the maximum Group members to 500, it also reinforced the role of group “host” (群主), a specific individual that would be legally responsible for all the in-group speeches and actives. Such policies are WeChat’s way of negotiating between the government and its users (now over a billion of us!): ever since WeChat launched in 2011, Chinese users have been utilizing Groups to run everything in the grey area, from pyramid-selling, gambling, to the share of porn and “incorrect political information”.
WeChat Groups for illegal loans (left) and porns (right).
As the old Chinese saying goes, “when the top has plans, the bottom always has counter-plans” (上有政策，下有对策). Despite tougher regulations, many Chinese today are still using WeChat Groups to leverage business interests, express political views or discuss social issues. “Some of my friends would send out a ‘dangerous’ news in our group, wait for 2 minutes, then withdraw it in a flash,” says a friend we interviewed, “it is a useful and perhaps the last resort for us to see the other side of the story without getting everyone into trouble.”
On March 26th, Robin Li, Baidu’s founder and CEO, spoke at a national forum. “Chinese users are generally less sensitive/more open towards privacy,” says Robin, “if the loss of privacy means greater convenience and security, in most cases, they are happy to accept the deal.”
The speech sparkled a wave of criticism among liberal Chinese netizens, but having reflected our own relationship with WeChat, we have to admit Robin’s verdict holds some extent of truth. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as privacy anymore in the digital age, and everyone is aware of the fact that WeChat is the most censored app nowadays, but honestly, so what?
To deconstruct the “so what” a bit further, we are confronted with two strands of reality. For one, there’s simply no alternative to WeChat for anyone living in today’s China: it is the single must-have app for everyone's home screen, the app that gets everything done and connects everyone in a most norm-conforming, efficient manner. For two, we genuinely just need the app, so much that sacrificing a bit of privacy is even tolerable. With multiple layers of relationships saturated in a single app, WeChat has becomes the place where everyone finds their identities, understand their values, and fulfill their responsibilities in the society.
As Chinese, it is only by forming Guanxi that we come to the being of ourselves. In today’s mobile-empowered China, the best, and perhaps only channel to complete such a process is WeChat.
We'd love to know -
How many WeChat contacts do you have?
How do you like your Groups?
And, of course,
Would you ever consider #deleteWeChat?
Till next time,
Yan and Biyi