Caixin
Jan 10, 2019 10:11 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

WeChat Creator Takes On All Comers in Four-Hour Speech

Zhang Xiaolong, creator of the WeChat social-media app, speaks at a developers conference Wednesday in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. Photo: Tencent Holdings Ltd.
Zhang Xiaolong, creator of the WeChat social-media app, speaks at a developers conference Wednesday in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. Photo: Tencent Holdings Ltd.

“If I could relive that moment, I would redesign one part of WeChat’s interface,” said Zhang Xiaolong, the creator of China’s near ubiquitous social media app. “That’s to make the default setting for photo-sharing as untraceable, to give people more control over their privacy.”

Zhang, who also goes by the English name Allen Zhang, shared how he created the 8-year-old app that has revolutionized how Chinese people live, at an annual conference for WeChat developers and partners Wednesday in Guangzhou, capital of South China’s Guangdong province. Zhang, known for giving long speeches, spoke for nearly four hours at the event.

Dubbed “the Father of WeChat,” the 49-year-old led a team with fewer than 10 members to develop the first version of WeChat in less than 70 days in 2010. The app debuted the following January. As of August, WeChat boasted 1 billion daily active users, making it the first domestically developed app to reach that milestone.

WeChat has since grown well beyond its roots as a chat app by incorporating functions like photo sharing, voice and video calls, and mobile payments, making it an everyday app for anyone living on the Chinese mainland.

Users sent 45 billion messages and made 410 million calls through the app each day in 2018, according to an annual roundup published Tuesday by Tencent Holdings Ltd., which runs WeChat. In late 2017, the average daily figures were 38 billion messages and 206 million calls.

Its growing influence has been met with both cheers and jeers. Some had doubts about WeChat’s approach to pushing its mini-programs, and others wondered if its most recent upgrade is giving users what they want. Whatever the criticism, Zhang had answers in his speech.

Mini-programs

Zhang said Tencent will ramp up effort to establish an ecosystem of mini-programs, the “sub-applications” of outside services that run inside WeChat.

Tencent touted mini-programs, which it launched in early 2017, as an innovation that could replace other companies’ apps on users’ phones, potentially making WeChat the only app users would ever need.

Two years after its launch, however, the function has yet to live up to the hype, as not many companies have jumped on the bandwagon.

“We can’t say mini-programs are a success at present, but we are patient and will use the next two or three years to nurture the ecosystem,” Zhang said.

He said the company will adopt a more “open” ecosystem, meaning that mini-programs won’t be limited to companies linked to Tencent. “We might not have done very well in the past, but in the future, … we will treat every company that develops a mini-program equally,” he said.

‘Moments’ exodus?

Zhang also rebutted criticism that users are abandoning Moments, the WeChat function similar to Facebook’s News Feed, in which individuals can share personal photos and their favorite news articles.

About 750 million people access Moments every day, with each individual checking it more than 10 times a day on average — for a total of about 10 billion daily visitations, Zhang said.

This function, called “Friends Circle” in Chinese, is a closed system that can be seen only by users’ friends.

However, Zhang did acknowledge that the design of Moments might have a flaw — the page is inundated by many carefully designed and edited images from people who tend to present the best side of themselves on the social media platform.

Launch of Time Capsule

WeChat rolled out a new function in December called Time Capsule. Separate from Moments, Time Capsule is a feature similar to Instagram Stories, in which users can post short videos that disappear after 24 hours.

Time Capsule is widely seen as WeChat’s response to popular short-video platforms such as Douyin. The app, known as TikTok in English, is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, a startup said to be a force to reckon with in China’s future tech scene.

Zhang said he is confident that Time Capsule will gain traction in the near future.

“Just like mini-programs, we are patient with the development of Time Capsule,” Zhang said. “The video format will eventually replace images because they convey more information. It is a better vessel for social interaction.”

User-empowered content reading

In its December overhaul, WeChat also introduced an upgraded Top Stories function, in which content shared by a user’s friends will be displayed on the user page.

Such content is pushed by users’ subscription accounts, where content creators — including individual users, companies and government bodies — can distribute longer articles to their followers.

WeChat has touted the upgraded Top Stories as a more user-friendly, user-empowered reading feature, differentiating it from other content aggregator apps such as Toutiao, which is also owned by ByteDance. Toutiao uses artificial-intelligence-powered algorithms to push content to users.

“We aim to reach the masses, and it seems that a user-empowered system is better than one purely driven by an algorithm,” he said.

Contact reporter Mo Yelin (yelinmo@caixin.com)

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