Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider
- Mark Zuckerberg has laid out a vision of how Facebook services will become the backbone for the way people live online, Business Insider’s Shona Ghosh writes.
- Zuckerberg’s vision for Facebook is uncannily similar to how the WeChat app dominates modern life in China, serving a variety of functions from messaging, social networking, and e-commerce to taxi-hailing, bike-sharing and travel booking.
- Over six weeks in China, I saw WeChat’s ubiquity firsthand, where to get anything done — from paying for a coffee to making plans with business acquaintances to buying a train ticket — life is infinitely easier with the app.
- If Zuckerberg follows through with the WeChat model, it’s about getting more user data, not less. Because of how many services Chinese tech companies offer to their customers, they have wildly detailed profiles of each user, which they monetize, often directly in the app.
Imagine this: you are walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City and you spot a hip coffee shop. It’s cold so you decide to pop in for a hot chocolate.
As you wait in line, you notice that no one is pulling out their wallet to pay. Instead they tap their phone and voila, there’s their macchiato. You realize the app everyone is using to pay is Facebook.
But you deactivated your Facebook account months ago. They don’t accept cash. No hot chocolate for you.
A week later, you’re at lunch with a friend and she tells you all of your friends went to a club last weekend. You ask her why she didn’t invite you. She says she forgot. You don’t use WhatsApp, which Facebook owns, and that’s where they made the plans.
The bill comes and you two decide to split it. She pays with Facebook on her phone. When it comes time to give her your share, you fumble. You don’t use Facebook anymore and can’t use its built-in "Bill Splitter." Now you have to go to the ATM to get cash.
You head to the train station to catch the commuter rail to your parents’ house. Everyone is walking directly onto the train, swiping the ticket they bought on Facebook. You get into the long line to buy one from the only agent still working the station and nearly miss the train.
If it sounds far-fetched that an app could be this ubiquitous and essential to daily life, think again. It already exists in China.
WeChat, or Weixin as its known in Chinese, has been described by The New York Times, in a video about Western firms copying Chinese apps, as a "Swiss Army knife."
Over the course of six weeks in China last spring, I saw firsthand how essential WeChat is to modern Chinese life.
Each of those scenarios I just described actually happened to me in China.
China’s ‘Swiss Army Knife’ app is everywhere
Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider
As one Chinese person described it to me, everyone uses WeChat. It’s more than an app or service, it is modern life. More than 1 billion people use the app, and it has been China’s most popular for some time.
While WeChat is first and foremost parent company Tencent’s messaging service, the app serves a variety of functions from messaging, social networking, and e-commerce to taxi-hailing, bike-sharing and travel booking.
If you want to talk to someone in China — for work or personal — you don’t use e-mail, you don’t call their phone, you send them a message on WeChat.
When I first started reporting in China, I found it impossible to find e-mail addresses and, even when I did, I often didn’t get responses. Then I downloaded WeChat and suddenly found myself in direct contact with every source I could want.
It was like being able to see after spending a week blind.
What’s amazing is how many people use WeChat’s various services — not just young tech-savvy millennials.
My partner’s grandmother, who is Chinese, doesn’t know how to use the internet, but she has WeChat on her phone and she’s an expert at it. When you meet someone at a business meeting in China, no one asks for your phone number or hands out a business card; you scan each other’s QR codes so you can trade WeChat IDs.
When you wander through a city, busking musicians and panhandlers don’t ask for coins or cash; they have signs with their WeChat Pay QR code on it.
I remember the first time I saw this phenomenon play out. I was standing in front of the ancient city walls of Xi’an, a city of 13 million in northwestern China, when I happened upon a group of Chinese students gathered to listen to a few musicians sing on a Saturday night.
The musicians had no open guitar case to take tips. But every couple of songs, one of their friends held up two cards printed with QR codes — one for Alipay, WeChat Pay’s competitor, and the other for WeChat Pay. Dozens of the attendees lifted up their phones and, in seconds, had scanned the QR code and sent a few yuan to the performers.
Mark Zuckerberg’s dream also means getting more user data
This is the kind of ubiquity Mark Zuckerberg seemed to be alluding to in his most recent blog post on Facebook’s future. As BI’s Shona Ghosh wrote, Zuckerberg "appears to be envisaging a future where people touch a Facebook-owned service for every aspect of their daily lives, just like WeChat in China."
Make no mistake, despite Zuckerberg’s recent overtures to protect user privacy, this kind of business plan is about getting more invasive user data, not less.
The Chinese tech industry’s greatest innovation is the mass adoption of ecosystem-based technology platforms, including WeChat and Alibaba.
Most often likened to the Amazon of China, Alibaba began as an e-commerce platform but has expanded into travel booking, movie tickets, social networking, live-streaming, food delivery, and entertainment. Alipay’s data and services deeply are integrated into its main app, linking accounts to a money market fund, loan products, and a credit-scoring business.
The consumer data from these services is used to build detailed profiles of each user, which companies can then monetize for marketing purposes directly within their apps in ways that even Facebook and Google would salivate over.
One Chinese tech exec told me how consumer data they’d gathered was so targeted and specific that they were helping brands determine what products they should be building or selling in the future and what consumers to target, not just how to advertise right now.
That kind of data is the long play that it sounds like Facebook has in mind.
In China, many Chinese are okay with the ubiquity of apps like WeChat because it comes down to a trade-off between convenience and privacy. Chinese internet services have developed rapidly through widespread access to the user data generated by mobile payments, food deliveries, ride-hailing, messaging, and other services.
It’s made people’s lives easier. With little history of privacy in Chinese culture, many Chinese have shrugged at WeChat’s ubiquity.
Whether America’s tech industry follows the same path will likely come down to whether Americans make the same choice.
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