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[liberationtech] Why Skype (real-time) is losing out to WeChat (async)

Tricia Wang mailinglists at
Tue Jan 8 09:56:45 PST 2013

Nathan - I'm so glad that you kicked this conversation off!
I research how Chinese youth are coming of age online under an
out-dated authoritarian regime.
And one of the things I've been observing is WeChat - so it's really great
to see some conversation around this because it's also helping me think
through my findings.

I would agree with most of your points about why WeChat is more usable than
Time and time again, we see that the reasons why specific apps are more
popular can be explained in terms of usability.
But it's also important to see that user features are deeply embedded in
existing cultural norms.

So in the case of WeChat, my findings confirm many of the reasons you've
mentioned  - in particular technical benefits of battery life conservation,
personal, persistent, realtime, and brand familiarity.

But there are several other reasons that are more deeply intertwined with
the social norms of Chinese society - I won't go into the social norms but
I'll just briefly list several reasons why Chinese youth love WeChat

   1. *curiosity *- shake it function (摇一摇),  the drift bottle in the sea (
   漂流瓶)  function, and look around  (附近) feature makes it easy for users to
   chat with strangers
   2. *meeting strangers offline* -   the near by (附近) function allows you
   to see who is physically around you and then message the people you want to
   meet in person
   3. *emotional exploration *- many youth use it to meet strangers and
   talk about their emotions.
   4. *sexual* - youth use it to flirt with other youth, some use it to
   find other youth for one-night stands,
   5. *small groups *- users can easily create a chat group
   6. *visual language -* any asian mobile app always has a wide range of
   emoticons - this is a MUST!
   7. *updates from friends -* Moments is a built in social network that
   looks a lot like twitter or facebook, users can post photos and updates and
   see their friends updates also

The first three points are the interesting reasons for why We Chat is so
popular -- they all revolve around meeting strangers.
One of the most important things to understand about Chinese apps is that
the successful ones make serendipitous communication with strangers really
In a society with very restrictive social norms around permissive
interaction and self-expression, Chinese youth don't have a lot of
opportunity to meet new people outside of formal contexts or to express
So the quasi-anonymity of the internet provides a space for youth to
explore emotions with strangers - emotions that they don't feel that they
can share offline with people they know like friends and family. There's a
bunch of social structural reasons for this that I won't get into here. But
the important thing I realized was the extent to which youth spend time
online interacting with what we would call strangers - and really strangers
is not an appropriate word because some of these relationships become very

I don't see user practices around We Chat as an example of communication
becoming less personal.
Rather I see youth trying to find ways to personalize communication.
Texting is more personal than talking for Chinese youth - it's easier for
them to share emotions over words than voice (also less expensive and more
Ahat is interesting is that they are trying to fulfill a desire for a more
personal connection in what seems to be a very impersonal way (i.e. talking
to strangers). But for them, a more impersonal connection with a stranger
presents the greatest chance for personal connection.

So Maxim Kammerer's comment is on point - these apps allow a more
continuous connection and in the case of We Chat - it's not just
connections with personal ties, but also strangers!

The analogy I use is a bar - and that some apps are a lot of like third
spaces, spaces outside of home (first space) and work (second space). The
informality of a bar widens what is considered permissive behavior. When
you walk into a bar, you can be anyone - you have no institutional or
personal ties attached to you. We go to bars to meet strangers but also to
be a stranger.
We all need informal third spaces where we can chill in the company of
unknown others.
And in the same way, we also need similar spaces online.
Some software environments are very formal (prescriptive behavior,
primarily personal ties), but some software environments are more informal
- and it is in these informal online spaces that people gravitate towards
when they want to explore a self outside of prescriptive ties. In Chinese
society where there are VERY limited options for self expression, online
third spaces like We Chat are a place where self-exploration feels safe for
Chinese youth.

Also as an aside, the discovery of "why X Chinese app is surprisingly
better than X Western app" is something I am hearing more often lately.
Some of the conversations echo similar reactions a few years ago when
Google was kicked out of China.
I wrote about a piece about why Chinese users *weren't* infuriated with
Google's exist because they preferred to use Baidu over Google - and was
quite a shock for people in the West - a censored web browser preferred
over a non-censored web browser?  OMG NOT TRUE! But it was true and still
is true.

When building tools for users outside the West, one of the thing we're
always figuring out is how to leverage existing cultural understandings
into insights for features that will compel users to adopt the unfamiliar
app over their homegrown app. I think those of us who are in this space
have a lot of work cut out for us, so it's a good thing that we're sharing
these insights!

* / 王圣捷 *
China: +86 18627809913
US: +1 9189379264

On Wed, Dec 26, 2012 at 2:07 AM, Nathan of Guardian <
nathan at> wrote:

> On 12/24/2012 05:10 PM, Maxim Kammerer wrote:
> > I think that the reason is simple and obvious: society shifts to
> > preferring more impersonal communication. Same reason that teenagers
> > prefer texting to talking on phone, and hanging out to dating.
> >From what I can tell, it is the exact opposite. The ease of use and
> persistent connected design of these apps (aka you have these always-on,
> long running group chat rooms), and the ability to quickly send voice
> messages and video, makes it MORE personal. The users feel a constant
> connection to a whole group of friends no matter where they are on the
> planet, and can, with a press of a button, reach out and hear their voice.
> I am not saying this is a global phenom, applicable to all societies. I
> think within this occupied/exile dynamic, and also where standard
> telecomms are difficult, the impact of apps like WeChat and WhatsApp is
> perhaps greater than places where Skype, Facetime and Hangout work well.
> +n
> --
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