Will China’s social media fly global in 2017?

The beginning of the year – Western or Chinese – always means its resolution time. For the year of the rooster, I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to cut my social media addiction, which has really grown over time.

A few years ago, when living and working in the UK, there were three apps I constantly checked: Twitter, What’s app and Instagram. I was and still am on facebook too, but for some reason I use it a lot less than the others. Now, here in China, I still check all these apps, but I also check one more called We Chat, which has been in operation in China since 2011. A day, maybe even an hour (!), now cannot go by without me checking my we chat, and there are millions in China who feel the same.

But why is we chat so successful? And could it be successful in other markets – for instance in poorer countries in Africa or elsewhere?

These questions remind me of a similar situation, where another technology has had a huge impact on development in Kenya. That technology is Mpesa, introduced in 2007 by Safaricom (an offshoot of the UK-based Vodaphone), backed by a grant from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to help poor people get access to finance. Fast forward to 2015, and the platform is now probably DFID’s and Vodaphone’s greatest success story, as it now has over 23 million active fans in Kenya – that’s over 50% of the population – including my family, who use it at least once a day to bank and pay for everything from sweets to cars. But the Kenya success has not been replicated in most of the other, ten-plus countries it has since been rolled out to.

Why has it worked in Kenya and not elsewhere? And what does this mean for we chat?

It’s difficult to say why one tool works in one place and not the other. Incentives, sticks, alternative competitors, economies of scale, all play a role. With respect to M-pesa, this article suggests regulation, monopoly and scarcity all played a role.

So after 6 years of operation in China, will we chat really be able to global?

I think it has potential. What is quite special about we chat compared to other social media apps is that it is a one-stop-shop for two things. First, for daily life – from banking to ordering taxis. Second, for sharing photos and news with family and friends.

This “everyday services plus gossip” model is a potent combination across the world, but perhaps most so in African and some Carribean countries, where land-based services are limited because of a severe lack of infrastructure. Infrastructure is improving, but not fast enough. Also, Kenyans don’t use m-pesa to chat and gossip. For that we turn to facebook and what’s app (now owned by facebook), creating chat groups related to various interests as well as just tapping into different news feeds. This list shows that in most African countries, the majority of internet users are also Facebook subscribers.

Offering the “everyday services plus gossip” functions in an easy-to-use app in African countries, therefore, could have a huge impact on development.

Indeed, we chat’s creators have noticed. We chat Africa has been operating in South Africa since 2013, and in 2015 the mobile money part – “we chat wallet” – was added. Here in China, you need a Chinese bank account to use we chat wallet (which is sometimes a real pain for immigrants to China!), but in South Africa at least, you don’t, which makes it much more like m-pesa. By 2014, it was estimated that we chat already had half South Africa’s what’s app followers.

That said, for now, I only have one member of my family outside of China that uses we chat – my sister – and that’s because she has visited Beijing.

Why? It’s not clear. This interesting podcast suggests it’s the fact that we chat is also able to be tracked and changed by governments. Governments seeking more control over their populations might promote the app, but if indivduals are wary, they will stick to other encrypted platforms like what’s app.

Who knows what the future holds then… For now though, I don’t think I’ll be making a resolution to cut social media in 2017, the year of the rooster. I’m too interested in how we chat might go global and help development!

January 2017

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