From 2009 to 2012, Sina Weibo seemed to be dominating Chinese social media world for urban middle classes and young people. The second biggest weibo site created by Tencent, which has identical function as Sina Weibo have not gained same success in the China market. Tencent has been very successful with online-chatting tool called QQ. I was among the first generation who started to use QQ in 1999 and over the years I stopped. After I moved to the UK, I mainly use Skype and MSN to chat with my parents until 2011 when I found out that mobile phone companies, such as Lyca and Lebara, had deals of calling China for 1p per minute. I turned to the more traditional model of communication of making phone calls.
In 21 Jan 2011, Tencent published this smart phone app called ‘WeChat’ (‘微信’). It is a free app to download. Users are able to send text message, pictures and voice messages. By the end of March 2012, WeChat users reached 100 million.
Three days ago, my Chinese friend introduced me to download WeChat app on my IPhone. Jian, my Chinese friend who works in Hangzhou city, told me that his middle-aged bosses were all using WeChat and many people who were frequent users of Sina Weibo now prioritised using WeChat. My mum was over the moon when I told her I downloaded WeChat. Apparently she and my aunts had been using WeChat for a few months. They mainly use the voice message function as they see it as an alterative to making phone calls. For my mum’s generation (60 and plus), the benefit here is ‘free’. They might only be saving a few pennies but still this benefit pushed them to learn new technology. Now my mum doesn’t have to rely on me calling her—she can leave me voice messages to communicate whenever she wants without the constraint of time difference. For their generation who have suffered poverty and famine in the 50s and 60s, the benefit of free service means a lot even they are now living fairly well-off.
WeChat has the social function of ‘Look Around’ and ‘Shake’. ‘Look Around’ enables you to see a list of people who have their internet and GPS on ranging by their distance from you. ‘Shake’ is for when you shake your phone, it displays users who are also shaking their phone at the time, regardless of their location. The benefit here is to make new friends. As the users of WeChat in the UK are mainly Chinese students at the moment, the location function help them ‘look around’ and find people they want to make friends with. WeChat ‘moments’ allows updating status with a picture and ‘what’s up’ allows users update their status by texts. This all helps users choose whom to chat and make friends with.
I can see the potential benefit of dating using WeChat. As the purpose of ‘shake’ is to connect to people to socialise, you know the other person also wants to socialise and probably are single. As for the ‘look around’ function, users can set up their profile clearly implying ‘looking for a date’ or ‘I’m single’. Yu, my Chinese friend who introduced me this app, said WeChat has been used by Chinese students in the UK to look for one-night-stands. She showed her list of people in ‘look around’ and I saw a couple of guys’ profiles with a big and clear profile pictures and statuses listed as ‘lonely’ or ‘I want you’. There were also girls’ pictures showing cleavage or having a flirtatious expression. The convenience of dating/mating also thanks to the location function that list users from closest distance to further away. People, who want to use WeChat to connect to friends and family rather than dating or getting harassed by random messages, can always have a profile picture of landscape or something rather than their faces, and turn off their GPS. This is what Yu has been doing since she got a boyfriend, her profile photo is now an object and in this way, no random guys would chat her up.
If more people in the UK know about WeChat the benefits of making friends with people who are near you, I can see it take over dating websites. Unlike dating website, the light-heart of ‘social’ takes the pressure off ‘dating’ and people can build up connections and feelings along with chatting. This is similar as ‘chat room’ which were popular over a decade ago. Instead, you could also see pictures and status which is similar as Facebook.
I could see this app get mass popularity in the UK. It can definitely help many lonely hearts to connect and communicate with others and who knows, there might be a few happy endings!