I lost my phone once in college. It was the most miserable week of my life.
Back then, when I still went out and partied, I had one of those crappy Motorola flip phones. All you could do with it was text and make calls. After I lost it, no one had any idea how to find me. I couldn’t meet friends for dinner, couldn’t figure out which bar everyone was going to, my ex-girlfriend even thought I got hit by a taxi when I went MIA for a few days.
Short of losing my phone, if you deleted Wechat from my phone today, it would be just as bad as that week in college.
Wechat, for those of you who don’t know, is China’s WhatsApp on steroids.
But even this description is severely underselling Wechat. I’ve never been as dependent on something nor experienced anything as convenient as Wechat.
The reason I need Wechat boils down to 2 points: Everyone in China is on Wechat and payments.
Everyone in China is on Wechat
Sorry before I talk about this I want to go on a brief tangent. What the hell is wrong with news articles nowadays. They do such a terrible job of sourcing information. It’s all articles sourcing each other, but rarely sourcing the original information. I wanted to find the latest number of MAUs (Monthly Active Users) for Wechat, and I had to sift through 4 or 5 articles before I got to the original source. Come on people.
Anyway, Wechat had 846 million MAUs during the third quarter of 2016. That’s freaking insane for an App that’s only been around since 2011. Oh and BTW, Tencent, the company that owns Wechat, also owns QQ (another messaging service). QQ’s MAU for the same period? 877 million. Yeh, everyone in China uses a Tencent product (there’s obviously overlap, as one user can have both Wechat and QQ on their phone).
But this is still from a macro point of view. If I’m not talking to someone in person, then this is how I regularly communicate:
Talk to wife – Wechat
Talk to parents (in the US) – Wechat
Talk to sister (in the US) – Texting / Wechat
Talk to China friends – Wechat
Talk to office co-workers – Wechat
Talk to boss – Wechat
Talk to bankers / lawyers / accountants / investors – Wechat / Phone
Talk to US friends – WhatsApp / Wechat
You can see a pattern here. Everyone I am in contact with has Wechat. For family and friends in the US, Wechat has voice and video call functionality that allows us to make calls to each other when we’re both on Wifi or 4G. Super easy and super convenient.
Though there is a downside to this.
Since all my work contacts are also on Wechat, I’m essentially on call 24/7. Anytime anyone has a question, they shoot me a Wechat message. Sure I can choose to ignore it, but since I’m a responsible adult now, I try to write back some semblance of a response. In my eyes, Wechat basically replaced Blackberry from back in the day.
It’s impossible to separate personal life from work life anymore. The line between friends and co-workers is blurred. It all just kind of mushes together into one big messy orgy. With fat chicks and old hairy men with beer bellies. Ugh.
But that’s the way it is in China. You can’t get any work done without Wechat. I get so many emails every day, I usually need a quick Wechat message to remind me of what issue is currently most urgent.
And more often than not, the only contact information I have for certain people is their Wechat.
Emails are just a formality now (CYA anyone?). Phone calls still gets some stuff done, but half the time I don’t have someone’s phone number, and the other half is usually me telling someone to check their Wechat.
It’s a love hate relationship with Wechat when it comes to communicating. Love it for the convenience to keep connected with everyone. Hate it because I am available all the time for work and have no personal life anymore.
The other reason Wechat has become so essential is because of its payment functionality. At least when I left the US in 2013, there was no easy way to make payments with your phone. But not in China though.
In China, you have two players in the mobile payments space: Alibaba’s Alipay (more commonly known as Zhifubao 支付宝 in Chinese) and Tencent’s Wechat Pay (In Chinese we just say “Pay with Wechat” 微信支付).
Alipay came to prominence because everyone used it for payments on Alibaba’s Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of eBay.
For Wechat Pay, they entered the payment market a little bit later, but they did one thing that allowed them to gain a ton of market share. They utilized Quick Response codes or QR codes.
Tencent already assigns each Wechat user a unique QR code. Usually what happens when 2 people want to add each other on Wechat is, one person busts out his personal QR code (found in Wechat), and the other person uses Wechat’s scanning tool, and boom, you become Wechat friends. No need to enter hard-to-spell usernames or long phone numbers anymore to look up another user.
Tencent took advantage of this by connecting payment functionality with QR codes.
It’s easy for me to scan another person’s QR code and transfer money to them (this is only for strangers, for friends, I can transfer money directly to them without scanning a QR code). Or for a merchant to scan my QR code, and deduct money from my Wechat account (which is linked to my bank account) when I make a purchase. As a result, it’s super easy to make or receive payments.
Now you have an ecosystem where everyone already has and uses Wechat constantly, and you solved a huge problem of daily life by allowing people to easily make payment transactions.
For large merchants, all they needed was a piece of hardware that allowed them to scan QR codes (usually big chains like McDonalds or Starbucks have their own scanners). And for smaller merchants, they use their own QR code which you scan and then you can transfer money to them.
So every day, I use Wechat Pay to pay for anything and everything. Whether it’s a taxi fare, Filet o’ Fish (my second favorite thing to eat at McDonald’s, behind Big Macs), some vegetables I bought from the street vendor beneath my building, or paying back a co-worker who spotted me for lunch (and who also used their Wechat to pay for lunch), everything is done electronically through Wechat.
And this was all because of QR codes.
Because of Wechat Pay, I don’t even need to carry my wallet around anymore. All I need when I leave the house are my phone and keys. And in the future, when locks on doors become digitized, we can probably use our phones to unlock the doors as well.
Wechat is like crack. You get so addicted to it, you just can’t stop using it. And the more you use it, the more dependent on it you become. Please don’t delete it from my phone.