The age of QQ
I still remember the day when a teenage girl helped me set up my first social media account. It was a QQ account, and it will be 10 years old if I still keep using it today. For many people in my generation, QQ means a lot throughout our childhood and teenage years. We sent instant messages to each other for the first time, posted childish updates on QQ Zone pretending to be cool and decorated our little online space with animations like glittering, floating pedal. QQ Zone, one of the earliest examples of personal social media page in China, has manifested itself as an online hub of self-expression, just like foreign counterparts such as the Facebook personal page. That was the late 2000s, and people only began to embark on their online life for the first time and discover what social media has to offer. Hence, I don’t remember any significant infamous incidents of online trolls, cyberbullying or invasion of data privacy during my QQ years.
In 2006, QQ had 233 million monthly active users. It reached its peak in 2016 with that number soaring to 899 million and fell to 800 million in 2018. There is no doubt that as the pioneer of social media and messaging tools in China, QQ held its dominance in the market for a very long time. However, that dominance soon was weakened insidiously and taken over by another product from Tencent, and you probably know its name: WeChat.
Migrated to WeChat
I did not start to use WeChat until the second year of high school. Before that, I had heard from people talking about this chat app whose popularity kept growing. They said it is more private and super easy to use, especially for people who are not that tech-savvy. That formed my first impression on WeChat, a product that does basically the same thing as QQ but maybe serves a closer circle of friends and family members better. That was not persuasive enough for me to switch and let go of my QQ account nonetheless because of my emotional attachment to it.
However, things started to change gradually when more of my family members, particularly seniors, started to use WeChat, and my QQ seemed like a playground full of kids sending memes to each other, telling endless jokes and gossiping. One of the reasons why social media is important to me is the convenience it brings me to connect with my family. Most of us work and live in different cities and have reunions only on special occasions such as birthdays and public holidays. Staying in touch with my family through social media helps me maintain the bond. In 2016, I made the switch.
Looking back, the memory is too vague to recall. It was a natural shift under the social effect - everyone around me started using it, so I’d better catch up and start to use it as well. The fear of missing out constantly pushed me to stay with the crowd, and with the other hundreds of millions of people in China, we make WeChat the fifth most-used app worldwide; in China, more than three-quarter of the population use the platform, and around 30% of the Chinese people’s mobile Internet time is spent on this mega app. During the past three years, I have been observing the people around me as well as the evolution of the platform, because I want to know: what impact has this mega app brought to China and its people, especially my generation?
Complicated online self-identity
The main reason why my friends and I have switched to WeChat is better privacy can only incur mixed feelings of most people nowadays. The boom of the app has consequently led to such a gigantic user base that this social media giant eventually encompasses nearly every type of social relationships. Maybe that’s exactly WeChat’s strategy - to design a highly user-friendly product and to attract as many users as possible. Once it becomes an indispensable part of your life where most of your online conversation takes place, you cannot get rid of it any more. The result? Your boss, your partner, your daughter, your primary school teacher, the e-business owner from whom you occasionally buy the Japanese cosmetics and Australian health supplements…every person you can think of who has any degree of connection to your life, they are all on the platform and sit, mostly quietly, in your friends list.
That’s when the irony comes. We were brought to this place because we expected that we would enjoy a much smaller social media circle, that we would feel secure posting trivial daily updates, and that we would like to show our authentic selves. Yet the exact opposite happens to many users not only in my generation but both the generation before and after. People have more than 1300 WeChat friends, people configure their personal Moment page so that only the most recent three day’s posts can be seen by others, and people carefully curate the content of every post so they appear to be positive and living a fantastic life.
The writer of the book Essentialism Greg McKeown said in an interview that “all technology is a good servant for a poor master”. I partially agree with this opinion, but I still struggle with the phenomenon happening on WeChat. The app’s design and its mainstream dominance have resulted in one actuality - people’s self-identity becomes so multi-faceted that some of them feel as if they are living several different personas online at the same time. Although each individual also carries more than one social role offline in society, the transition from being a colleague at the office to being a mom at home is not mentally straining and intimidating. However, all the physical and timing buffers are eliminated on WeChat. For example, you may constantly switch from your college student identity to your daughter identity then to your girlfriend identity, all through frequent taps by your fingertips.
In my opinion, the multi-faceted self-identity on WeChat is a much more complicated issue than my understanding. WeChat has already become an essential digital possession that is necessary for anyone to socialize. When two people meet for the first time and if they are introduced through some middle contact or they have something in common (the commonality applies even to cases like “we both attend this workshop today”), it’s highly likely that they will end up sharing with each other their WeChat account’s QR Codes, saying, “come, scan my code” and expanding their friends list by one more slot. In many situations, they have no idea why friending a person who they have no prior experience spending time with on WeChat seems like a beneficial decision. Eventually, you never talk but keep seeing each other’s Moment posts appearing in your feed, thinking “who is this again?”. Is socializing supposed to be so mindless and random like this?
Controversial news such as bosses assigning tasks directly to subordinates on WeChat after work and teachers checking students’ progress by letting their parents report in WeChat groups appears in trending topics once in a while. The common sentiment will always be, “what can we do about it?”. You expose yourself to this wide network of individuals who can reach out to you anytime and anywhere, and there is no escape because it’s shockingly abnormal if you don’t have a WeChat account or you don’t check it daily when you have one. When more than 75% of Chinese are on this combination of WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn, WeChat resembles the air you breathe when being online.
When people’s self-identities are intertwined on this enormous platform, it’s easy to get trapped into the never-ending desire for social approval and delicate self-expression. Since I come from Generation Z (defined in Wikipedia as people who are were born in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s), I can feel it going on all the time. The app has many features trying to satisfy all user groups and support one’s need to deliberately configure their own WeChat world. For example, users can divide their friends into different groups and apply limits by blocking certain groups from seeing their posts or from being seen on their own feed.
Interestingly but shockingly, I know a person who has 25 user groups to strictly control their level of “importance”. It’s hard to imagine what process she would go through when showing herself with a certain identity in every post and how deliberate and meticulous she is when curating the content. Another girl owns two WeChat accounts - one is for herself to dump in all negative emotions so nobody gets hurt, another is for positive self-portray so she appears optimistic to others. Having a secret account helps her manage her emotions, as looking back at those negative posts makes her realize how unstable her emotion was back then and try to manage her feelings better next time. Millennials and Gen Zs are frequently engulfed in the mental struggle of proper socializing, especially on the WeChat Moment feed. A male friend of mine complains about the superficiality of social networks in general and how it deteriorates further on WeChat. He often finds himself in a paradoxical mindset of decision-making. Should I like this post of this college acquaintance? Not liking it makes me seem apathetic while liking it merely shows a meaningless message of “I read your post, it is good and bye”. Commenting may seem more sincere, but what should I type in the textbox since we are not that close in the first place?
The privacy aspect of WeChat sets it apart from other mainstream Chinese social media (such as Weibo, Tik Tok and Zhihu). You can imagine it as a private Instagram account combined with Facebook’s feed and WhatsApp’s text messaging features, but far more advanced. In order to access another user’s WeChat Moment, you need to get his/her permission first to be added into that user’s friends list, and then hopefully that person doesn’t block you. The intricacy of these details can render interactions into carefully designed tactics. How one presents oneself online effectively projects one’s personality and attitude about life towards the extreme. Refreshing the Moment feed, you will often find the content of posts varies wildly. Negative people shift their biases and complaints online, positive people share highlights in their lives that are phenomenal but sometimes seem a little too far-fetched, and most people just throw in random photos of their lunch taken at a fancy Instagram-style angle, their university club’s publicity poster and some restaurant’s promotion posts begging for likes so that they can get the meal for free. When you have several hundred users posting content like these in your feed, you are easily fed up with unimportant people in life, worthless information that sucks up your time and a huge doubt about the purpose of online socializing and self-identity.
At the end of the day, people take things differently. I shut down my Moment feed, limited my WeChat use to three times a day and felt nothing less than relieved and recharged. I deleted users in my friends list whose name I cannot even recall (although I’m still left with 319 contacts). I firmly believe that I don’t need to show how my life has been to others online. I am living at the very moment myself and for myself, and I never need other people’s attention or validation of any kind. That’s the biggest lesson I took from WeChat.
Freedom of speech is a vague term in China. Citizens know the environment they are living in, and the environment greatly determines the information they receive, which further shapes their value system and mindset without many of them consciously noticing. The mainstream media, the press and the central authority interconnect as a powerful system whose purpose is to spread the message that the society people live in is a harmonious and fast-developing one. On one hand, fruitful evolutions have taken place indeed, with millions of people being lifted out of extreme poverty and R&D of high tech racing against each other across the country. On the other hand, there is a growing number of voices that stand out to tell hidden stories that challenge the normalized social understanding of the status quo, which is also happening on this mega platform.
Subscription to official accounts is a major feature of WeChat that allows users to receive information from any channel appealing to their interest. Businesses like restaurants and fashion brands use it to offer discounts and advertise certain commodities. Online celebrities use it to upload their vlogs and fashion recommendations and promote products and services. Authorities and organizations such as schools and non-profit charities use it to post news and expand awareness. Anyone can set up an official account if there is a need to spread some message to a wider audience who opts in to hear from them.
That can change the game for individuals who previously had no influence to build a personal brand or to convey messages that align with their own value to the world, or at least, to a huge audience of Chinese netizens. Studying abroad not only makes me realize how polarized the world is right now but also shows me that compared to the outside world, how seemingly peaceful the online environment in China is and that is attributed to a lot of delicate control. However, there are voices that fight to make a splash and let the waves radiate. On Weibo, sensitive trending topics, such as corruptions and food poisoning in schools, will be taken down but netizens nonetheless keep spreading the message by calling more people to participate in it. The same goes for WeChat. Official accounts that advocate feminism and gender equality fearlessly exposing sexual harassment scandals, that uncovered the stories of college students in top universities being arrested and detained for being “rebellious” for criticizing the political party, and that analyzed the societal phenomenon of fearless reporting, are the voices which strive to bring out the critical and objective perspective and unravel the truth, but also are silenced and suppressed. They are short-lived, like the sparkling fireworks, using all their strength to arise into the sky so more people can see them shine brilliantly but quickly become swallowed by the endless dark night.
It happens often that a WeChat article I saved in my favourites became inaccessible with the redirect page saying “the content cannot be viewed due to violation of regulations”. The unmissable red sign with an exclamation mark poses an uncomfortable feeling in me each time. No exact reason was shown for the removals. It is expectable that 3 days after the Hongkong parade when I asked my parents whether they have heard the news, they replied asking me what happened. It is a never-ending trade-off and compromise whose scale is so large that the impact of the social environment is like the air we breathe in.
The feeling of being watched does not only apply to the official accounts but also in the lines of text messages we send to each other. It sounds creepy but regardless of its validity the feeling that you cannot say everything you want worries and disappoints those who don’t feel at ease. There are thoughts of conspiracy that even the voice messages can be transferred into texts by algorithms in the backend and used in the powerful hands. My friends and I do not talk about politics on WeChat and even we do, we recall the messages we send and pretend we have said nothing. This is ironic because as a computing student I would like to believe that this feature only works on the front end - you cannot see the message yourself in the user interface, but every word you typed is in the database (it reminds me of what my database professor taught us: “the truth is in the database”).
Every time when I think about this invisible censorship, whether imaginary or not, I feel a huge void of powerlessness. But why would people care? As a normal citizen, you work through your 9 to 6 life, distance yourself from the disputes going on under the tip of the iceberg and stand in the enormous crowd with other people unanimously believing that our community, our society and our country are only going to be better and better, and that sacrificing your data privacy is just a compromise you generously give without any worry. Because your attention is in which celebrity breaks up with who, in never-ending auto-playing Tik Tok funny videos and in deciding what to post in your WeChat Moment so that you look just nice, why would anyone care about what you do and say online?
I find it hard to categorize WeChat as a social media app. The more appropriate way to describe it is a gigantic eco-system that does everything. This is very different from apps in many markets where the focus and specialization of an app are important. The omnipotent eco-system was not built overnight. It started out mainly as a social media app that supports texting and posting updates. Gradually throughout the years, as more and more users boarded on the platform, it naturally became a perfect market for businesses to reach out to consumers, hence WeChat cooperated with third-party operators to provide services that cover daily activities in life all in one app: booking rail and flight, hailing a taxi, buying movie tickets, renting or purchasing a house, booking hotel rooms, food delivery, most payment such as utility bills, bank loans and money transfer, and so much more. The built-in payment system, WeChat Pay, enables extremely convenient transactions through the fingerprint authentication. The holistic and convenient experience users get on WeChat makes the switching cost unsurprisingly high.
That’s not the end of the story. WeChat built a developer tool so that anyone with some technical skills can build WeChat Mini Programs for things such as building an e-commerce store and providing membership services. Users only need to scan a QR code for the program and it will be automatically opened and run on the platform, so no download is required. The scale WeChat has on hand is unprecedented and explains its monopoly in the market. It’s worrying, though, that such an enormous eco-system will powerfully impede the rise and development of new social media apps competitors. As most people see it, without a highlighting advantage that’s so alluring, everyone will come back to WeChat at the end of the day, much like everyone uses Facebook abroad.
Mark Zuckerberg said he is regretful not to take the advice of learning from WeChat early on, and this year he announced that Facebook’s focus will be privacy. Whether or not the transition is going to happen and it’s going to be easy, social media giants of all kinds across the globe have changed the very way people socialize. We land on them with the expectation of fun, intimate and meaningful relationships, and yet we question what is the true value they bring to the world. Do their pros outweigh the cons? Perhaps eventually people need to realize that the relationship between us and the platforms is never equal, and relationship-building finds its authenticity in the precious moments such as when we hold hands together, when we look at each other in the eye and when we burst into laughter and tears sitting side by side.
Are Chinese people tired of WeChat? Zhang Xiaolong, the founder of WeChat, gave a long talk in January about WeChat’s development. He said at the beginning, “In China, half a billion people think we are not doing well enough every day, and one hundred million people want to teach me product development. To me, I think this is very normal.” With all the complaints and the disappointment, people come back to the reality that this mega app has become an intrinsic part of their life. When my 12-year-old cousin in China sends me funny gifs on WeChat when I am in Singapore, I have nothing in mind except the fact that although we are more than one thousand kilometres away, he knows I will always be there. If we cannot change the platform or the environment, we can only change ourselves to be more mindful. A delicate balance is and will continue to be what we fight for under this digital age.