WeChat, in a system design perspective

Chen Shen

Abstract Ever since its debut in 2011, the Chinese messenger app WeChat promptly evolved to one of the largest social networks worldwide. Moreover, WeChat integrated many key functions, successfully eliminating the users’ need to switch to other apps. While its counterparts in other parts of the world developed the specialty in the corresponding fields, WeChat evolved in its generality to support all kinds of plug-in-like apps. Especially after it supported mobile payment, and Chinese government began to cooperate with WeChat and used it as a portal to public services, WeChat began to play a core of Chinese mobile life. The highly integrated mobile environment made profound impacts on the Chinese users as well as society as a whole. And by integrating social network, media, business, advertisement, public service, this platform is creating possibilities that unimaginable by other apps even other societies. This paper will analyze WeChat in a system design perspective, discuss the dependence, affordance, and emergence of WeChat, providing a non-determinist way to understand WeChat’s prevalence in China.


What is WeChat? While Chinese young people build their online life upon it, people from other parts of the world have hardly heard of it. In short, WeChat is a Chinese social media app that integrates lots of the core functions of popular everyday apps. But after we examine the system design and underlying structures of WeChat with the concepts and paradigms gained in this course, we may find WeChat is much more than that.

 Introduction to WeChat

WeChat started off as an IM (Instant Messaging) app in 2011. Currently, it is the dominating social media and IM app in China. By MAU (monthly active user), WeChat ranked No.4 worldwide, only after the Facebook series.

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Figure 1. Monthly active users of selected social networks and messaging services. Image from www.statista.com

WeChat was 6 years younger than Facebook (counting from Facebook’s open to public registration which is 2005), and it was targeted for the China market only at first. Since WeChat is a completely mobile app which does not have a corresponding website, we can compare the mobile MAU of Facebook and WeChat and come to notice that WeChat’s MAU increased at an even more rapid rate than that of Facebook.

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Figure 2. Number of mobile monthly active Facebook users worldwide from 1st quarter 2009 to 3rd quarter 2016 (in millions). Image from www.statista.com

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Figure 3. Number of monthly active WeChat users from 2nd quarter 2010 to 3rd quarter 2016 (in millions). Image from www.statista.com

Then we take a quick look at the WeChat interface (we will talk about the functions later in the paper). It’s fairly easy to register a new WeChat account (we encourage you to do that right away and get a better understanding of it), the app markets of major smartphone OS all provide free download). One can create a WeChat account using the QQ account (a Chinese PC-based IM software by the same company, showed in Fig.1 and has 650 million MAU), or with a mobile phone number. Once logged in, the first step is to add contacts. It is easy to import QQ contacts and mobile contacts in batch, keeping the existing contacts alive on the new platform. And there are ways to add new contacts, one of the easiest ways is by scanning QR code (we will discuss QR code in detail later). Every account has a unique QR code, one can press the “+” on the top right corner and then press “Scan QR Code” (e.g. this one, the author’s account) to send a friend request. If the other user confirms it, the two can start chatting. The whole interface design is clearly for mobile use, with big icons, no intense text, and all buttons gathering in the right/bottom part of the screen for one hand navigation.

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Figure 4,5. The download, scan QR Code of WeChat

The chatting part is not that different from WhatsApp, or Messenger. The majority of the screen is dedicated to messages, with four icons listed at the bottom, which are Text/Voice Switch, Input Window, Emoji, and Attach.

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Figure 6,7. The chat interface, and layout of WeChat

Back to the main page, right next to Chats are Contacts, Discover, and Me. Contacts are mainly for contacts managing. Discover has the Moments function that enables users to share photos and browse friends’ Moments. Me serves as the setting of WeChat. Four clear-cut pages distinguish different interaction scenario, with the highest menu-depth of three, meaning that users can navigate to any function within three clicks.

The interface of WeChat by far appears straightforward. Before we proceed, here are some data about WeChat:

  • Daily active user improved 64% in 2015
  • 25% of the WeChat users open this app more than 30 times daily (2015)
  • In the first quarter of 2016, WeChat generated 1.8 billion online revenue
  • During the Spring Festival of 2016, WeChat users sent and received “Red Packets” (celebration message with digital cash) in a total of 32.1 billion times
  • Adult users read articles on WeChat for 40 minutes daily on average (2015)
  • WeChat has portals to 85 thousand mobile apps

Why is such a plain looking app so powerful? What is the underlying power that made it the fourth biggest social media network in the world? In the following sections, we will discuss three aspects of WeChat: dependence, affordance, and emergence.

Dependence. What made WeChat possible

I will call this mechanism evolution by combination, or more succinctly, combinatorial evolution.                                                                                                                                             —W. Brian Arthur

As Arthur put it In The Nature of Technology, “Novel technologies must somehow arise by combination of existing technologies”, we can see the same mechanism in both the birth and growth of WeChat. Because WeChat itself came with no novel functions but a new way of combing existing technologies at the time, in a way that enables new synergies between the elements.

Before WeChat’s launch, Blackberry users enjoyed an IM app called BlackBerry Messenger, it had all the functions that WeChat 1.0 had, except for the constraint that BBM can only be used on BlackBerry phones, which accounted for only 16% of the global market. The platform limited the widespread potential of BBM.

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Figure 8. Global market share held by smartphone operating systems. Image from www.statista.com

Then in the second half of 2010, an app named Kik launched. Kik supported all the basic messenger functions, and it supported adding friends directly from mobile contacts. Unlike BMM, Kik fully afforded cross-platform communication. The downloads skyrocketed to over a million within two weeks of release. Due to the splendid performance and incomparable edge, Kik was banned on the RIM platform (for BlackBerry).

Three months later, Talkbox launched with the ability of “Push to Talk”. But it didn’t share the capability of multi-platform at the start. As a result, BBM, Kik, and Talkbox, which were combinations of existing technologies themselves, all had advantages and disadvantages respectively.

In the beginning of 2011 WeChat 1.0 launched. Comparing to the current version, 1.x could be only labeled as minimalism, but it “inherited” both Kik’s cross-platform compatibility and Talkbox’s Push-to-Talk versatility. Comparing to the foreign competitors, WeChat had the unique advantage of the gargantuan user base of QQ, which was produced by the same company as WeChat. Because of that, WeChat can seamlessly inherit a user base of more than half a billion and enjoy a huge starting edge against its domestic counterparts. As WeChat evolved with the ability to import mobile contacts in batch, everyone the user actually knows in person is within the reach of WeChat.

These are the technology dependences of WeChat, it is fair to acknowledge WeChat didn’t bring novel technologies per se, yet the way to unite existing elements and create a new environment is also a kind of innovation.

Comparing to traditional social networks like Facebook, Pinterest, WeChat is different due to its hardware dependence. WeChat is “mobile native”, rather than “mobile migrate”. From the beginning of WeChat, it was a smartphone app, meaning that everyone use WeChat meets a hardware requirement list: speaker, microphone, GPS, camera, etc. As a result, WeChat can just assume every single user has full access to voice messages etc., which is a great edge against website-based messenger app. For example, if a Messenger user sends a voice message, the receiver gets the notification on the Facebook website when he is using a public computer with no speaker, then the data is transmitted but the information not delivered.

WeChat’s rapid rise also has its historical dependence. Unlike most developed countries, in the age of landlines, voicemail was not effectively popularized in China. Many reasons were behind this technical malformation, for example, the relatively short spell between the popularization of landline and mobile, and landline service was largely monopolized by some nation-owned companies at the time who lack the motivation to popularize new services. The result was the Chinese society gradually built up a huge hankering for voice message service. Then WeChat played the outlet of this huge affection need, facilitating the spreading.

We can also talk about the social and cultural dependence of WeChat. The design of every successful software cannot be truly universal. It must correctly adapt to the culture context of the targeting market. Yet for the nuances in apps or services, people tend to compare them in the spirit of absolutism. But sometimes it is wrong to regard them as advantage or disadvantage, but rather an active choice. For example, many messenger apps have the function to use specific symbols to indicate the current status of a message user sent. For Facebook Messenger, one knows if the recipient reads the message. For WhatsApp, they even add three different indicators to communicate more reliably and effectively.

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Figure 8. Status indicators of WhatsApp

From a software development perspective, this function is very easy to add, but WeChat never adapts to such a method, because of the social and cultural context of its main target market. In China, messages created by such apps are filtered and censored. If WeChat has a sent check, there is the possibility a message is blocked instead of lost. If the sender tries to resend multiple times and still cannot send the message, he may realize it is been filtered which is undesired by neither WeChat nor the government.  So the sent indicator is incompatible with the Chinese social context. Instead, WeChat embraces the method to indicate a sending failure when it is due to network connections and prompt user to resend.

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Figure 9,10. How certain words are filtered in WeChat

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Figure 11. Resend indicator in WeChat

As regards to the read check, it is more of a cultural difference. China has long been regarded as a nepotism society, in which a declared ignoring is very aggressive and shameful for both parties of the conversation. Instead, if one reads a message and chooses not to reply,  both sides would avoid the loss of face which can be a much greater issue than the message itself. This psychology deeply rooted in the China. Comparing to the Sun-Apollo worshiping western culture, eastern cultures are more Moon-oriented, which emphasize the value of vagueness and ambiguity, to the extent they are regarded as aesthetic objects. Many studies have done about this cultural feature and we do not have to discuss it in depth. But one explanation by Hayao Kawai in Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan can be particularly helpful to understand the eastern spirit: “nothing has happened” wherein nothing is interpreted as a special subject rather than null. When A ignores a message B sent, he actually replies a message “nothing”, leaving B in the ambiguity (which is a good thing) to interpret the situation as a superposition state of either being blocked or being ignored. In conclusion, the read check is extremely unsuitable for eastern cultures and WeChat’s lack of status indicators are actually by design.

In this part, we examine the dependences of WeChat from technical, historical, social, and cultural perspectives. There are other dependences of WeChat as well, but we can already see clearly there is no room for a determinism explanation for WeChat’s success, which is practically a combination of functions, constraints, compromises, and contexts.

Affordance. What made WeChat magical

Human brains and computers will be coupled together very tightly; the resulting partnership will think as no brain has ever thought and process in a way not approached by information handling machines today.                                                                                                 —J.C.R. Licklider

When talking about WeChat’s affordance, we can divide the subject into two sections, affordance for developers, and for users.

The greatest thing about WeChat may be the integration. From the last section, we can see that WeChat started rather simple, with no extraordinary function or service. But from Version 1.0 to the current 6.5.1, WeChat kept integrating useful functions into the platform. As a result of this consistent evolving, WeChat is now called “an App to rule them all” in China. While in U.S. one may need a dozen of apps for daily life, in China WeChat alone is sufficient.

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Figure 12,13,14. The function integration and comparison of WeChat

The reason and logic behind this are the open API structure. For any novel app in China, functions aside it cannot compete with the dominating user base of WeChat. If users can access the service via WeChat, it means millions of user influx. We can liken the platform effect of WeChat to web portals when WWW was at its early stages, main portals like AOL provide access to other contents which made them popular. When WeChat opened the API for other apps, many third party developers began to provide additional features to the already magnificent complex. And many successful app developers believed in a better future if their products have a daemon instance on WeChat platform. Thus the integration of WeChat began. For example, Group Buy, the Chinese version of Yelp, number one of this market in China, had its own website and mobile app for long. But in late versions, WeChat and Group Buy carried out cooperation in depth and added a Group Buy portal in WeChat. Through the portal, WeChat users can gain access to Group Buy functions without leaving the WeChat platform, even without the need to install the Group Buy app in the first place. It means Group But potentially share the vast user base of WeChat, which can be a win-win situation for both parties.

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Figure 15. WeChat official API web page

Group Buy was already influential and famous before the grafting, an overlord of its own market. Yet it cannot resist the prospect of cooperating with WeChat. The similar “immigration” happened to other leading apps as well: Didi (Chinese Uber), 58 (the leading housekeeping app in China), Meituan (a leading take-out service in China)  successively joined the league and kept expanding the platform.

For those apps less famous, the motivation can be even stronger: once the portal is established, they immediately accomplish the transition from a start-up app to an industry leader. This phenomenon happened many times in WeChat Games, the game platform of WeChat. In WeChat Games the majority of games are not developed by WeChat. But once a game is integrated into the WeChat platform, it immediately has users, payment method, promotion platform, multiplayer cooperation/competition platform, etc. In a game purism perspective, many of the popular games in WeChat Games are rather dull, with low graphic performance and monotonous game mechanism. But WeChat turned them into social network games which serve as a totally different role for the users. It is fair to say by integration, WeChat is reforming the landscapes in many app fields. 

Of all the capabilities WeChat has integrated over the years, the payment is particularly a game-changer. It also happened in version 5.0. Once the users bound a bank account to WeChat, the app turns into an online transaction platform. Once again, it was no novel function to support online transaction for a mobile app, in China Alibaba had Alipay for this function long before WeChat. But by combining the user base and the portal to other apps, WeChatPay created a new payment environment.

By the time of WeChatPay launched, Ali already occupied more than half of Chinese online payment. The secret weapon of Alipay is Taobao and Tmall (Chinese biggest online commerce platform), the dominating e-commerce platforms of China. As WeChat is for QQ, Alipay is the natural extension on mobile terminals of Taobao and Tmall. But this was also the limit to Alipay, it is more of an extension of traditional online payment for online shopping, not creating a new model of paying. Both Taobao and Tmall are physical commodities based platform, so WeChatPay seized the service based transactions market where no unified payment platform monopolized before. It also came with the innovation to send “red packets” to other individual or groups with digital cash in it, to create a whole new model of transactions. The amount happened in both service based market and red packets were both small comparing to physical commodities,  but by doing this WeChatPay effectively foster the users’ habit of paying within WeChat, and then exploited the habit to other areas.

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Figure 16. WeChat Pay functions usage percentage. Image from www.walkthechat.com 

Taobao achieved the total sales of 15 billion dollars in a single day on 11 Nov. 2016, the Bachelor’s Day, and more than 80% of that was done on mobile phones, how can WeChat compete with that? One thing WeChat is trying is integrating one of the biggest online supermarket of China, JD, into the platform. As a result, users can directly buy everyday things in WeChat. Comparing to Taobao and Tmall, JD had much fewer choices when it comes to the types of merchandise, we can liken JD to Target while Taobao more like eBay. The Chinese name of Taobao has the meaning of “treasure hunting”, in which a vast of choices are available if you are good at hunting. But in the mobile context, it can be harmful as well. A typical treasure hunting scenario on desktop involved longer time, comparing between commodities (different pages), and bargaining with the seller. But the mobile context affords none of these. So mobile buyers tend to buy well-known commodities, they care about quality over variety, they choose familiarity over novelty. In this case, JD’s fit perfectly into the slot. As a unified supermarket, JD had better quality management over the commodities than Taobao, but with much fewer choices. Together with WeChat, they provide an easy model of purchasing wherein customers buy daily consumables without much of choosing.

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Figure 17. WeChat Pay users and main purchase categories. Image from www.walkthechat.com 

By fostering new mobile payment model like red packets, new payment environment like service based market, and integrating supermarket like JD, as well as blocking the portal to Taobao, WeChatPay’s user rate doubled from 2015 to 2016. And with the high popularized rate and payment ability of WeChat, the government is using it as an interface to smart city. In many cities in China, like Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai,  Wuhan, users can access mobile public services via the WeChat portal. For example, Beijing WeChat users can pay the utility bill, pay the traffic fines, make an appointment in hospitals, check out a book, conduct visa services, and many other public services within the WeChat platform. The list is rapidly expanding, as well as supported cities in China. And because this kind of service is mainly done with webpage-based technology, which is very easy to develop and maintain, they act like optional plug-ins for WeChat, making it even more flexible and extensible. It is no longer science fiction that one can get access to all the services, both public and commercial, with portals enabled by WeChat.

When talking about WeChat’s affordance, we cannot ignore QR Code. QR is the acronym of Quick Response, it is a technology originated in Japan during the 1990s. It is a label generated by the algorithm to be optical read and decoded. It can easily encode complicated text information (1850 characters) into a small label attached to other things. Because of the high redundancy in QR encoding algorithm, when the surface suffers no more than 30% damage it is still readable, making it extremely suitable for printed outdoor situation. Nowadays, China is among the countries which best integrate these technologies into the society. And WeChat is compatible with it from the start.

Every WeChat user has their own unique QR code, so a typical scenario when two people meet and want to exchange contact information is one provide the QR while the other scan. In an instance, a friend request is sent and connection established. But QR in China is much more than that. In the following pictures, the first one is British Embassy in China, the second one is a sweet potato vendor. These two poles is a quick demonstration of the QR craze in China.

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Figure 18,19. The QR code used by British Embassy, and by sweet potato vendor

U.S also used QR for a little while but it didn’t prevail, there are some reasons behind that.

  1. Lack of technical dependence. When QR was introduced into U.S, no standard reader was available. Neither Android nor iPhone had the reader in-build. One had to install additional apps that can only read QR to retrieve the information.
  2. Lack of universal portal. Even users read a QR with the special reader, the most thing they can do is to access a URL, which is not a big leap from traditional text-based information.
  3. Lack of regulation. QR was introduced to U.S in its early stages, where the standard protocol was not fully fulfilled. Many custom-made QR failed to generate a universally readable information.

Comparing to that, when we analyze the reasons why QR is so prevalent in China, we can find other historical and social reasons. The first is traditional QR leads to a URL, which is a string of Latin letters. To the English world, the URL itself is symbolically meaningful, but not for Chinese. Especially for the vast population with no English literacy. As a result, any method that can automatically translate information to URL is crucial and easily popularized. Another key reason is the timing. QR entered China when O2O model was on the rise, individual retailers have the greatest motivation to propagate their product or promotion information through this way. So in China, the popular of QR was not driven by WeChat or any other tech giants, but by numerous retailers trying to use new technology to boost their sales.

From a technical perspective, QR Code is simple and outdated, but from a sociotechnical perspective,  a simple technology infused by self-motivated individuals can achieve much higher than it seems to afford.

And QR profoundly expands the possibilities of WeChat. With a built-in reader, WeChat can decode all kinds of information embedded in the code, be it a URL leading to ticket sale, a transaction indicator leading to a purchase, a contact information that users follow, or a verification code for the user to log into a system, or just some text information for the users to read, WeChat can process them all, in the blink of an eye. In these part, we analyzed some major affordance enabled by WeChat. With the application portal, the payment method, and QR reading ability, WeChat user can process both online and offline information and services, penetrating the traditional barriers between different economy modes. They also get the ability to share all formats of media through the “share to” function of WeChat. In the next part, we will examine the emergent features of the WeChat society.

Emergence. What made WeChat phenomenal

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.                                     — Marshall McLuhan

By emergence, we mean collective behavior or properties of a system that can not be deduced by analyzing the constituent parts of the system. Emergence is the result of synergies, rather than bundling up of the elements within a system. Though in this paper we focus on the system design of WeChat, but emergence is rarely by direct design. As we see in the example of QR code in China, it is not WeChat who invents and promotes all the innovative and pervasive uses of QR code, but the decentralized self-motivated agents equipped with QR generating and reading abilities enabled by WeChat,  co-create a QR-omnipresent China. By this logic, in the complex sociotechnical system of all the users, companies, apps, government sectors, WeChat gradually begins to play the role of an enabler.

This can be a new stage for a mobile app at which it really begins to impact the society, not by providing functions for individuals to use, but providing a sociotechnical context for individual to exploit and co-evolve with the platform.

In this way, WeChat reshapes China in many visibly and invisibly. This is not the focus of the paper so we will not delve into details. But from a system design perspective, it is necessary and important to see the potentials when a designed system evolved into a decentralized adaptive system.

WeChat reshapes customs.

In China, the Spring Festival custom is one of the most consistent ones. People go back to their hometown at this time of the year for the celebration and family reunion. This is the time every year that big cities seem evacuated. In the past thirty years, the CCTV Spring Festival Gala is the core of traditional family activity. Members of the family gather together to watch TV until midnight comes and officially proceed into a new year. This tradition has been so long and so stable even in the age of new media TV are constantly losing its appeal. But even this massively collective tradition is changed during the past three years.

With the Red Packet function of WeChat, it is easy to send digital cash to friends with greeting words, and one can send red packets into groups. For example, you can seal 200 CNY into a red packet with ten parts and send it to a group of 20. Then it is more like a game of gamble, each member of the group who saw the message can open the packet and get a random amount of money from 1 cent. And the first 10 people open the red packet will carve up the 200 CNY. Traditionally, elders should give younger generation cash in the hope of a bliss coming year at this time of year, so the red packet smoothly blend into the custom by providing an alternative way for Chinese to give blessing cash to others. Especially in this time of year one is supposed to spend with the family, so this is a good way to stay connected with friends. But the gambling nature of group red packet slowly transforms into a game. Wherein group members send a packet with small amounts and the one gets the highest/lowest part continue the procedure. Some companies are also using this chance to send out large bonuses. As a result, everyone is in the close monitor of the smartphone, in fear of miss a large packet.

In 2014, the first Spring Festival this new tradition emerges, 5 million people take part in the game. In 2016, it was 516 million, nearly half of Chinese population. People sent red and received red packets 32.1 billion time, which is ten times more than 2015.

To further the trend, technical giants cooperate with CCTV or other TV stations, to add QR code into the gala. So during certain points of the show, if one shakes the phone, there is a chance he gets all kind of bonus, be it cash, tickets, coupon, collectibles. In the peak time of Spring Festival Gala, there were 810 million phones shaking in one minute. Even if each user are shaking two phones (which is very common in that context) at the same time, there were 400 million people shaking phones at the same time. Simply magnificent.

One can try to imagine the figure continue to grow in the coming Spring Festival. But no matter what the figure is, a whole new civil custom broke out in 2 years with an emerging business of billions.

WeChat reshapes the economy.

Online commerce platforms like Taobao is the dominating form in China. But during the years a new form of e-commerce is rising, called WeChat Business. Unlike Taobao, wherein the owner should practically maintain a web page about the online store, the WeChat Business owner only has to take pictures of the products and write some short introductions and send to groups he is in.

WeChat business has an even lower threshold and focuses more on user experience than propaganda. It also exploits individual credit in the field which is seriously missing before. And the cash flow is more fluent than Taobao because in Alipay a third party supervision will hold on to the money until a purchase is successfully finished in the protection of consumers.

This trend is encouraging more and more young people to start their own business rather than finding a job. There are absolutely shortcomings in the trend, but the stimulation for innovation is undeniable. With an easier approach to connect and interact with the customers and make transactions, Chinese young generation avidly embrace this entrepreneur wave.

The trend is not limited to business. Creating and maintaining an official account is more and more common nowadays. Due to the ability to push one article every day, many journalists, bloggers, designers, photographers, writers take WeChat as the staging area and try to build up their own fan community. A young girl I know in China, 21 years ago, has been writing in her official account for one year. Lately, she published a book and already ranked fifth in Chinese sales for youth literature.  This is unimaginable before WeChat came along.

More and more ambitious individuals, like her, like the old farmer selling potatoes with QR code, are seizing the opportunity for self-fulfillment, leading to an effervescent social environment. WeChat cannot take full credit for that, but it is the infrastructure beyond which these dreams are built.

WeChat reshapes society.

WeChat reshaped society in many different ways, here we only take a quick look at the moments. In moments users can share pictures, texts, or link to articles to his friends, or he can forward an article he likes. As a result, good articles quickly get to circulate among users. China is a society with relatively low social engagement, partly due to the practical ideology of the time, partly due to a low credibility of official media. So many people, especially the young and liberal ones, prefer WeChat articles than editorials. By forwarding such articles, different opinions and insights are circulated quickly and widely. There is still censorship for that, but the post-censor mechanism still enables the articles to been read by many. Thus it is a solid step towards a more open society.

Conclusion

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.                                                                  —Alan Kay

Though Chinese technology companies have long been accused as copycats, WeChat is something unprecedented in other parts of the world. By integrating popular functions, providing a portal to other plug-in apps, and merging the online-offline network of the individual user, WeChat is practically practicing a new kind of application, or rather, a mobile platform. It may present the future trend of social network and mobile apps, even a possibility of future digital presence. With the profound social influence of WeChat, China is experiencing a kind of integrated mobile life not yet experienced here in the U.S. And the young generation is using it as a platform to make more innovations thanks to a more flattening social structure enabled and connected by WeChat.

The rise and success of WeChat have its unique social and historical dependence which may not be repeated, but the rest of the world should pay attention to this emerging app, as well as the emerging social momentum empowered by it. It might as well be the next Facebook, or something bigger.


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