Today you are less likely to be asked ‘you mingpian ma? I admit I also occasionally get lost down the rabbit hole of sticker wars: someone sends me one of pigs waving out of a window, I raise them a lipsticked, winking Kim Jong Un, and they put a dancing cat on the table. Or choose the ‘shake’ function: physically shake your phone (producing a satisfying sound like that of maracas) and see who is shaking theirs at the exact same time.In my limited experience, incidentally, it is always someone in the Middle East.In 2011, the Chinese media, communications and internet giant Tencent, which Forbes now rates number 11 in the world for innovation, created We Chat in part to give users a way of avoiding costly text messages.Two years later, it introduced a payment system, and things really began to take off.Certainly, the NSA is also watching what you say on Facebook, Twitter and email (or at least to whom you’re saying it), and this should concern us all.But to date, only China jails people who pass on ‘false information’ (which might, in fact, be true, but inconveniently so) that is then forwarded 500 times or viewed 5,000 times.We Chat supports nearly 20 languages including English, Spanish, Hindi, Indonesian and Russian.In July last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that of the approximately 8,500 third-party apps available for the Apple Watch, We Chat, along with Twitter and LINE, was among the most-used.
But those 650 million – and the number is growing rapidly – aren’t just telling each other what train they’re on, sharing photos of their breakfasts, flirting, or organising or conducting a meeting, though they do all of this too, of course. Users, in China at least, can order and pay for a taxi; donate to their favourite charity; send DIY postcards from whatever city they’re in; transfer money to a friend; find their nearest petrol station; check in for a flight; search a library catalogue for a book; shop; pay off a credit card; book a doctor’s appointment; follow the official accounts of celebrities ranging from Fan Bingbing to John Cusack; buy movie tickets; keep up with the Communist Party line via the People’s Daily (We Chat’s most heavily subscribed official account); check the points on their driver’s licence; top up their mobile accounts and find restaurant reviews, in some cases discovering how many people are queuing for tables before adding their names to the list.
This makes We Chat, she says ‘more like a browser for mobile websites, or arguable, a mobile operating system – complete with its own proprietary app store.’ We Chat’s expansion into every aspect of life in China, which has been in tandem with the rise of China’s middle class, and the speed at which it is extending itself into the rest of the world is a business and technology success story. Some of the concerns are about its monopoly, or near-monopoly power – similar to those raised in relation to other establishment ‘disruptors’ like Google and Facebook.
Others are to do with the fact that We Chat operates within a country ruled under a dictatorial, one-party system that displays little tolerance for dissenting views or simple outspokenness on topics it considers sensitive.
It does seem there is greater tolerance when it comes to posts in English; it’s something to watch in any case.
It just may prove impossible to impose closed values on an open market.
Perhaps you would prefer to send out or collect a ‘message in a bottle’.