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The greatness and danger of WeChat: China’s Super App

While China is famous for its Great Wall, they also have a metaphorical “Great Firewall.”

Platforms that Westerners find impossible to live without such as Google and Facebook are banned from China, rendering them inaccessible to Chinese people. Even though the Chinese government banned these platforms, the demand for Web 2.0 services from the Chinese populace became too great to ignore. Initially, they were treated to imitation apps that basically lifted features from popular apps and repackaged them (ex. Baidu for Google, Sina Weibo for Twitter). Tech giants in Silicon Valley laughed these apps off as cheap knockoffs, but soon became alarmed by the rise of an entirely new trend in China: “super-apps.”

According to app data analyst App Annie, the average person has 60-90 apps on their phone. For most people, the majority of the apps  are social media, payment apps, specific services (such as Uber and Airbnb), streaming platforms, and games. China’s premier super-app WeChat includes every single one of these features in one stuffed app.

As an example, using WeChat, you could message a friend to go to the movies with you, check movie times, buy tickets, order a taxi, split concession prices with your friend, and reserve a table at a restaurant to eat at afterward, all within the same app.

WeChat goes far beyond a simple messaging service. The expansiveness of the app has caused it to skyrocket in popularity in China and internationally, totaling over 1 billion monthly active users. Obviously, the overwhelming majority of these users come from China, but the app is gaining popularity internationally.

While the huge variety of social and practical features in WeChat are super convenient for its users, the platform is an absolute goldmine for marketers looking for user data. Because WeChat is ingrained in so many aspects of daily Chinese life, it is one of the world’s most powerful data gathering tools. Being a communist country, China has little to no legislation on digital privacy, giving marketers and app developers free reign to harvest data and spy on users.

In 2016, Amnesty International awarded Tencent, the Chinese internet giant behind WeChat, 0 out of 100 on their report ranking companies on their encryption and protection of user data. The ubiquitousness of WeChat is an amazing convenience, but it’s a privacy-wary consumer’s worst nightmare.

It remains to be seen if super-apps will catch on in the western world. Major Silicon Valley corporations such as Facebook and Google have been rapidly acquiring smaller companies and services for years, divesting themselves into a variety of different projects and features. On Facebook, you can already use all of the normal features, plus pay people, play games, and share locations. Many websites already allow users to create profiles simply by attaching them to their Facebook profile, a feature that is hugely convenient and mirrors WeChat. As the big guns in Silicon Valley constantly add new features and assimilate smaller apps into their own, they could very well become super-apps like WeChat.

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