Instant messaging app WeChat has been showcasing the tenuous nature of authority in the world of social media. Parent company Tencent Holdings Limited has already initiated plans to spread the service beyond China, which could shift the balance of power in social media trends this year.
Facebook, meanwhile, has been busy securing long-term goals with deals including a $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, and $2 billion on virtual reality hardware Oculus VR. Whilst WhatsApp already boasts an exceptional user base, the emerging popularity of WeChat suggests there could well be a global battle for instant messaging supremacy in 2014. The implications of WeChat‘s success are ominous, and could finally introduce the reticent Chinese social media market to the rest of the world. This is an insight into the rise of WeChat to the international stage.
Social Media Trends In The Chinese Market
Whilst familiar social media formats have conquered most countries across the globe, there remains one major untapped market. In China, where there are numerous complex censorship laws, the likes of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Google+ are outright banned (Turkey recently joined these ranks by outlawing Twitter). WordPress and Wikipedia are also inaccessible.
Whilst this censorship would, to outsiders, suggest China has no interest in social media, the market is actually booming. Services such as RenRen, 51, Kaixin001, and WeChat offer the country the equivalent of what Facebook and their digital peers provide to the rest of the world. In the place of blogging is “weibo,” a micro-blogging craze which has swept the nation. Sina Weibo is one of the most popular services and boasts some 500 million users.
Most notable from this selection is WeChat, an instant messaging service which has begun to boom in popularity. The service itself offers many familiar features of social media formats, such as instant texting, photo sharing, video messaging, hold-to-talk voice messaging, multi-user broadcasting, location sharing, and contact information exchanging. It supports social media sharing via content feeds and plug-ins, which allows for international communication.
Its success was immediate, and grew exponentially from its release in spring 2011. Since then, in a succession of press releases, Tencent noted the app’s startling growth from 2011 to 2013. Courtesy of TechInAsia, an overview of these statistics makes for familiar online-success-story reading:
- May 2011: 4/5 million users,
- December 2011: 50 million,
- March 2012: 100 million,
- September 2012: 200 million,
- July 2013: 70 million users noted outside of China,
- October 2013: 271.9 million active users worldwide.
As for Tencent, whom may be complete unknowns to many of us, the investment holding company currently maintains a market value of around $150 billion. Since being founded in 1998 they have branched out into popular media, entertainment, and mobile app. Now they look set to take on the global market, which means Facebook’s WhatsApp is in the firing line. However, whilst this battle rages both services have controversial policies hanging over them which they will be working hard to dispel.
Censorship And Privacy Concerns
WeChat has a similar user trust problem outside of China. Whilst Facebook attempt to quell privacy concerns, Tencent has been busy defending the alleged censorship of messages from users outside of China. In January 2013 many international users reported issues regarding certain keywords in messages. The keywords, which were never revealed, led to a block on the message being sent. Whilst Tencent has dismissed this as a technical fault, there are concerns the service may fall foul to the censors. Naturally, this would be a major turn off for users outside of China used to autonomous, unrestricted commenting.
Whilst users are wary of these concerns, they are clearly not concerned enough to leave the respective messaging services. The situation will no doubt develop, but until then the battle for instant messaging supremacy looks set to commence.
The Instant Messaging Battle
Numerous media circles have been attempting to build a “war” of sorts as Facebook goes up against its Chinese equivalent. Whilst the rise of WeChat is perhaps why Facebook acquired WhatsApp, in an attempt to fend off complete domination from companies like Tencent, the two haven’t acknowledged each other’s endeavours to date. This is understandable, given their disparate markets. However, Tencent is the fourth largest internet company in the world, behind only Google, eBay, and Amazon. With this clout they can immediately spread their brand across the globe.
The Facebook experience has never offered the ideal free flowing chat experience, which is perhaps another reason why the WhatsApp acquisition went ahead. Facebook are capable of using statistics such as “1 billion active users,” but it’s noted many users are also actively switching to smaller services. Formats such as Snapchat, Vine, Google+, and Path are far more personalised experiences which are clear from the looming shadow of Facebook‘s administrators.
In essence, this is Facebook safeguarding their future with new, popular services. With WhatsApp they have certainly scored a success, as witnessed by a Tweet from the company on the 1st April. It boasted they had achieved 64 billion messages within 24 hours. A day later, however, and users took to Twitter to complain the service had crashed. With 465 million active users each month, this is understandable. What’s clear, however, is with WeChat on 271.9 million active users, and not yet fully available to the world, Facebook has got a serious contender with considerable clout to worry about. Whilst the outcome is unknown, we are, for once, seeing a vulnerable side to the social media giant.