The initial appeal and the giant problem with Weixin

Off Brand

Hello, darling readers! I have so much to talk to you about! I just got back from Seattle, where the 20th anniversary of the Seattle Erotic Art Festival was a resounding success. I also caught COVID, and been sequestered in my bedroom with my husband since we got back. And we’re not going to address ANY of that today, because it’s time for another marketing write up adventure (although I have things to say about the festival, we’ll get to those soon).

This week’s topic is Weixin, the all-in-one social media app from tech giant, Tencent. My social circle is more familiar with Tencent due to their media efforts, and how many video games they’ve got money in these days. The case study in my text book is from 2014, when Weixin (WeChat for international users) was still a baby to the social media scene and leaving competitors floored by its rapid rise. Since those nascent years, Weixin has been in the news for how often it is used as a monitoring tool by the rather authoritarian Chinese government (and there goes my chances of ever having a book circulated in China). I can’t write the “wow, look at this amazing social media marketing technology” article that the syllabus wants, because we no longer exist in the mid 2010s and a lot has changed. So we’re going to discuss the platform, why it’s exciting from a business standpoint, and then talk about the problem.

One Stop Shop

Weixin launched in 2011, a simple messaging app that has grown into a mega platform, and by 2019 boasted more than 1.1 billion active users in China, Southeast Asia, Europe, and America. So, from a business and consumer standpoint, what is it about Weixin that makes it so appealing? It handles practically everything. No, really.

Look at your smart phone right now. How many apps do you have? I have over 100. I continue to get more and more annoyed every year as businesses come out with their own app for everything that you have to use if you want the special discount, or the reward points, or whatever reason you have been pressured into using their stupid app. Then there are the social media sites I visit frequently, the chat programs I use, and my rotating list of mobile games. With Weixin, all of that is in one app. It’s a chat program, a social media app, a market place, it’s everything. You can message a friend, share a video, hail a cab, start your own business, browse the web, whatever you want to do, all without having to launch another program.

Source: Masters of Media

Those store apps I was talking about a minute ago? The annoying ones? Weixin has an answer for them. Weixin uses “mini apps,” which are versions of those apps that only operate within Weixin. From a business standpoint, it’s brilliant. There is no reason to go elsewhere, and who wouldn’t enjoy that kind of convenience? And as someone owning and running such a platform, who wouldn’t enjoy such a captive audience?

Big Fish, Tiny Fishbowl

It makes sense why my textbook would point to Weixin as an example of a stunningly successful social media platform. The Economist, back in 2016, dubbed WeChat the “One app to rule them all,” citing how it filled all aspects of life in China. My problem is that all this success is credited entirely to the fact that Weixin/WeChat is such a versatile mega platform that was integrated into the daily routine of so many people. Now, I am not saying that isn’t a factor, but let us discuss the elephant in the chat room.

WeChat’s model fits political theorist Langdon Winner’s outline of an authoritarian technology: It is “system centered” and “immensely powerful,” a technology that leads society toward authoritarianism.

Peter W. Liu, Ph.D., and Justin M. Liu

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) keeps an incredibly tight rein on what information can be accessed, which apps can be used, and how they can be used. Think back to the late 2010s when the US tried (and failed) to get WeChat banned from the Apple Store after it became public just how much the CCP used the program for monitoring. Peter W. Liu, Ph.D., and Justin M. Liu offer a very succinct explanation in an article (which you should 100% go read as soon as we’re done here) published in Monmouth Magazine:

“WeChat’s model fits political theorist Langdon Winner’s outline of an authoritarian technology: It is “system centered” and “immensely powerful,” a technology that leads society toward authoritarianism. This is made evident by WeChat’s unprecedented rise and the ways that it censors information. As mentioned, WeChat is indispensable in today’s China. However, it has not become a backbone of Chinese lifestyle simply because of its usefulness; as long as it continues to align with the CCP’s values, it will receive plenty of help from the government. On top of granting subsidies to Tencent, Beijing has globally banned or heavily handicapped virtually all of WeChat’s foreign competitors, making it the only logical choice for practical use.”

It’s easy to outpace everyone when you’re the only game in town, and the government is backing you.

Convenience or Privacy

So I understand and acknowledge that most of the information about my life is easily accessible by anyone who understands how to navigate the internet. A few web searches and you’ll walk away with almost anyone’s last three addresses, marriage history, and anything else that’s considered public record (and also possibly surprised and unsettled by what is considered public record). That said, there are still many things in my life that are private. I understand social media well enough to regulate what those apps share about me, I use chat programs that don’t have backdoors so that my conversations remain private, and thanks to recent legislation every time an app tries to track my information Apple has to inform me and give me the opportunity to tell it “no.” Which I do.

As convenient as an app like Weixin could be, even if built in a country that had laws about censorship and privacy, I feel like I would be reluctant to trust it. Perhaps because of what I know about Weixin/WeChat, perhaps because I just wouldn’t be comfortable with any one entity controlling that many facets of my life (I’m already a little uncomfortable with how much power I give to Google). As social media platforms continue to scramble for the top tier, however, we may see more companies looking to Weixin as an example.

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