Ep. 34: WeChat’s 7.0 Update and Allen Zhang, the Man Behind the App

In episode 34 of TechBuzz China, co-hosts Ying-Ying Lu and Rui Ma talk about the latest version of WeChat, which first came out on iOS the third week of December 2018, and on Android a few days later. It has been over four years since WeChat released an update this large, and since then, it’s added on over half a billion monthly active users. The latest updates included several widely expected features, namely, enhanced sharing of both video and content, which overlap with Bytedance’s core strengths — definitely not a coincidence. What’s the latest behind what is still arguably the most influential internet product of the past decade? And what has been the impact of WeChat’s founder on its product development?

Rui and Ying-Ying share that WeChat was created by Zhang Xiaolong, or Allen Zhang, who joined Tencent via the internet giant’s acquisition of Foxmail. He was originally tasked with heading up the Tencent R&D center and leading the QQ Mail team. As the now legendary — and publicly confirmed — story goes, Allen had a flash of insight, inspired by the traction the Canadian Kik Messenger had amassed in just 15 days. He sent a late-night email to Tencent CEO Pony Ma about the opportunity and the potential threat to existing Tencent products from this kind of mobile-based instant messaging. Pony agreed, and entrusted Allen to execute the release of Tencent’s own version. Just a few months later, Allen’s team released the WeChat version 1.0.

Our co-hosts explain that, though hard to imagine today, WeChat had an extremely rocky start and experienced several shaky periods during its growth. Looking back, it was by no means a sure-bet product from the beginning. Rui and Ying-Ying take listeners on a journey through the app’s turbulent history, through its various version iterations, and up to the present day. Throughout, they explain the impact of Allen Zhang’s ethos: Our co-hosts argue that he is an artist and a philosopher at heart who cares more about the user experience than about business metrics. How have these values shaped WeChat’s most recently stated primary missions: to be a great tool for the users it serves, and to constantly evolve and change in order to do so?

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(Y: Ying-Ying Lu; R: Rui Ma;)

[00:00] R: Happy New Year everyone from the Techbuzz China team! We are back and ready to rock.  Thanks for all of the season’s greetings we received — Yingying and I are really lucky to have fans like you!

Y: Today’s episode is slightly old news, because we are going to talk about the latest version of WeChat, which first came out on iOS the third week of December, 2018, and on Android a few days later.

R: 8-year old WeChat just upgraded to 7.0, and as the version number would suggest, this is one major update. You super geeks out there may remember that the last whole number update was 6.0 way back in September of 2014, that’s more than four years ago!

Y: So if you want to understand what’s the latest behind what I would argue is still the most influential super app in China, stick around and let us explain to you all about WeChat 7.0.

[1:21] R: Hi everyone! We are TechBuzz China by Pandaily, powered by the Sinica Podcast Network!

Y: We are a weekly podcast focused on giving you a peek into what’s buzzing within the tech community in China.   

R: We uncover and contextualize unique insights, perspectives and takeaways on headline tech news that don’t always make it into English language coverage. So you can be smarter about the world of China tech.

Y: TechBuzz China is a part of Pandaily.com, an English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” I’m one of your two co-hosts, Ying-Ying Lu.

R: And I’m your other co-host, Rui Ma. We’d like to acknowledge our partners DealStreetAsia and SupChina, creator of the Sinica Podcast Network! In addition to Techbuzz, you can also find Sinica which covers current affairs, NuVoices on women, the business-oriented ChinaEconTalk, and the Caixin-Sinica Business Brief from China’s leading business magazine. We’d also like to give a belated shoutout to some of our long time listeners, that’s: Wesley Shi, Turner Novak, Arthur Attal, Sebastien J Park, and Hsu Kang Li.

Y: And now for a small announcement for listeners in the Bay Area.  A record $69 billion went to Chinese tech startups in 2018. Find out what’s trending from 20 leading VCs and innovators at Silicon Dragon’s annual forum in Silicon Valley on Jan. 24. Sign up at https://silicondragonvalley2019.eventbrite.com and use the code SDValley2019Buzz for 50% off! You can also find this link and code in our transcript and episode description.

R: One last thing before we get started, if you enjoy listening to us, please take the time to leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Facebook or wherever you get your podcast!

[3:25] R: We are going to assume that all you Techbuzzers out there are familiar with WeChat, the Tencent super app that lets you do everything.  Although born as primarily a messaging app, it is what writer Karen Chu over at SCMP calls a mega monster app that “somehow combines Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Uber, Venmo, and even the App Store itself in one little package.”

Y: Or as Andreessen Horowitz GP Connie Chan called it, WeChat is the “one app to rule them all,” an “app within an app.” But while much has been written on WeChat and the outsized influence it has in the daily lives of Chinese people, we’re guessing that you probably don’t know as much about WeChat’s creator, 张小龙, or Allen Zhang, and the impact of his personal philosophy on this most influential internet product of the past decade.

R: Allen is extremely well-known and highly regarded in China. He’s 49 years old, and has been making tech products for more than two decades. Originally from Hunan province, the land of spicy food and Chairman Mao, he went to Huazhong University of Science and Technology, a premiere research school, and moved to Guangzhou to work after graduation, a city he’s never left.  That is where WeChat is based, not in the Shenzhen Tencent headquarters as you might expect.

Y: The first successful product he created is Foxmail, which was the most popular email program in China in the late 1990s into the early 2000s. The story goes that Qihoo founder Zhou Hongyi met Allen, whose product sense was already legendary, and deemed him too innocent 太单纯了 to be successful in business.

[5:21] R: The evidence was the following: supposedly whenever someone on the Foxmail team suggested paths for monetization, Allen would respond with a long sullen silence followed by the question – “Why do we have to do that? We have users. We have passion. That’s all we need.” 有用户,有情怀。

Y: And yet users and passions alone don’t make a company, which is presumably why Foxmail could not survive on its own and was sold for a few million dollars to a larger company just 3 years after launch.  5 years after that, in 2005, Tencent hadn’t forgotten about the genius of Allen and his team, and so came and acquired the Foxmail assets. Of course, the real deal was that Allen joined as the head of Tencent’s R&D center, and surprise! His first project was to lead the Tencent QQmail team, which he did, until 2010, when he began working on WeChat.  

R: Legend has it that Allen sent a late night email to Tencent CEO Pony Ma when he noticed the Canadian app Kik messenger amassing its first million users in just fifteen days, this is a story that Allen confirmed publicly yesterday.  Allen proposed that Tencent make something similar because he saw this kind of mobile-based instant messaging as a threat to Tencent’s flagship product, QQ messenger. As he remembered it, it was kind of a flash of insight, and not something he had been thinking about deeply for a long time, but simply something that occurred to him as important to communicate to Pony and boy are we sure glad he did.

[7:06] Y: Pony immediately agreed.  After all, Allen had his trust already.  Tencent had done quite well in acquiring Allen and his Foxmail team.  Not only did the original Foxmail product continue to survive and gain users and remained one of the best reviewed email programs in China, but since taking over QQmail, Allen had effectively turned the product around completely from a dud to the most popular email service in China. He had also successfully added all sorts of social networking elements to QQmail, including a “reading corner,” all knowledge he would use to his advantage when designing WeChat.

R: Before we go on more about WeChat though, we should take a pause here and just reiterate Allen’s style, which is very different from many of the other Chinese entrepreneurs we have covered here in Techbuzz.  Allen is a product guy through and through. But not just any product guy. The two words most associated with Allen, other than his trademark silence and few words, are “artist” and “philosopher.” It’s why other than Xiaomi’s Lei Jun, many in Chinese tech also refer to Allen as China’s answer to Steve Jobs.  If you ask me, while Lei Jun might share Jobs’ competitive business acumen, Allen is much more Jobs like in his product ethos.

[8:29] Y: It’s hard to imagine it now, but WeChat had an extremely rocky start.  No one besides Allen believed it could succeed.  Well, maybe Pony did, too, but none of the original dozen or so team members assigned to work on it believed that it had a fighting chance.  The reason is simple — Tencent already had mobile QQ messenger so… any feature the WeChat team could dream up of or implement can be deployed much more efficiently to the hundreds of millions of mobile QQ users who were already deeply connected to each other.  Whereas WeChat was starting with nothing. And Allen refused to use growth hacking to boost users. What, many of the team members wondered, was the purpose of making WeChat, a redundant product that didn’t even try to leverage Tencent’s existing clout?

R: Luckily, despite being filled with doubt, the WeChat team continued at it. For some of the team members, they figured it would at least be a chance to learn app development. That’s right. Most of them had only worked on one project for mobile before. The team was actually mostly web developers.  Let that sink in for a minute. They were assigned to Mission Impossible and they barely knew how to build it.

Y: Through it all, Allen remained optimistic.  In his opinion, a product wasn’t just the sum of its features.  It also had its own essence that was something indescribable, but something more.  Besides, he was always the type to go all in on anything he committed to, to make the best product, and WeChat was not going to be any different.

[10:08] R: When version 1.0 came out in January 2011, WeChat was a very simple messenger, and made almost no ripples.  True to his philosophy, Allen did not try to add users inorganically. To him, one should always tinker with the product until it has a natural, organic growth trajectory, a certain virality, because that’s when you know you have made something people actually want. In fact, he thanks this early period of stagnation and credits it with learning the lessons that made WeChat eventually successful.

Y: Those of you who were in China at the time will remember that it was far from just Allen who saw the opportunity in mobile messaging.  Xiaomi had made its own messenger, called Miliao 米聊, and beat WeChat to market by a full month.

R: Not just Xiaomi, but so many others. I remember doing research for Shanda, one of my clients at the time, who had also seen the explosive growth of Kik and of course also came up with their own clone.

Y: In comparison, WeChat fared poorly those first few months.  It was when, on a whim, Allen decided to incorporate voice messaging as pioneered by a startup called Talkbox for version 2.0 that they began to see some growth.  

[11:23] R: Although this was indeed ripping off of someone else’s idea, in their defense, the WeChat team didn’t blindly copy.  They thought carefully about how this feature might be used and decided that they would program the app to detect for whether or not someone was holding their phone up to their ear.  If not, the message would be played via the speaker. Seemingly minor tweaks, but you can already see how much thought the team put into where and how the user was going to use this particular feature.

Y: That was in May of 2011.  In August, for version 2.5, another key update changed the trajectory of WeChat forever. This feature was called “People Nearby,” and it did exactly what it says it does.  It allowed for you to find people nearby and strike up a conversation.  Again those of you who were living in China will remember this was during the Momo craze, so this wasn’t exactly an innovation either, but very similar to Momo’s original model.  The point is, it was a feature that was super popular and accounted for WeChat’s second early growth spurt.

R: The third pivotal product decision Allen made was 摇一摇, or Shake.  The team had always liked the idea of using gestures to add a contact.  In the US, there was a startup called bump that allowed for people next to each other to shake their phones and exchange contact information.  

Y: There was no reason, Allen reasoned, why that mechanism had to be confined to the person directly in front of you.  And so in October 2011, version 3.0 came with it the ability to shake your phone and add anyone else on the network who happened to shake their phone at the same time.  Finally, the WeChat team was no longer behind but innovating ahead of its competitors.  

[13:14] R: I remember when it first came out I used it a lot because it was just so fun, especially if you were up late and couldn’t sleep, and was wondering, who the heck out there was an insomniac like you shaking their phone at 3:30 in the morning? I remember this was the first feature I saw people using that made me download WeChat, and sure enough, yesterday I checked how long I’ve been on WeChat — 7 years and 2 months, pretty much right after this feature was released. And I would say I was an early adopter but not that early. As you can imagine, by this version, the team was really starting to breathe more easily because organic growth was happening at scale.

Y: Version 4.0 would bring with it even greater growth because this was when the WeChat Moments 朋友圈 feed was introduced.  Location sharing and support for third party apps such as music players were also implemented. For those of you who love to geek out about product, you’ll notice that unlike many other social media feeds, WeChat Moments are purely chronological and do not sort by relevance or popularity.

[14:23] R: We’ll reiterate this again later but for Allen, the point of WeChat is to let the user live their life, whether that means to pay their bills or to just connect with their friends, and not to optimize for session length or other engagement metrics.  He actually wants people to use WeChat to connect offline. If that’s the goal, then of course Moments should show you what your friends are up to right now, as much as possible, right?

Y: That’s not necessarily how Moments was or continue to be used, but it is true that that’s been Allen’s rallying cry since the beginning.  In his opinion, technology should be used to enhance productivity, which in a way is measured by how little time your users stay in your app to get whatever they need to get done done. It never made sense to him that session length was to be as long as possible, because isn’t that the antithesis of being productive?

R: Last night, he brought this philosophy up again and addressed another often asked question about WeChat, which is why it doesn’t have read receipts like many other messengers. In Allen’s mind, the best messenger allows you to send a message and forget about it until you receive a reply.  Having you sit there and wait to see if it was delivered and read is a waste of the sender’s time.

[15:42] Y: So do you guys get it now? Are you understanding through these examples of real product decisions what kind of person Allen is?  If I had to sum it up in one sentence, Allen is an idealist who cares about how to improve his user’s lives more than profit or any other business metric.  I know many entrepreneurs claim to have their users’ best interests at heart, and I’m not saying that Allen necessarily makes all his decisions this way, but there’s a compelling amount of evidence that unlike the company that everyone loves to hate these days — Facebook — that this is true, at least a good portion of the time.

R: Yeah, Allen really wants you to consider WeChat to be a tool to help you sort out your life. Like a trusted friend.  And here is yet another example of how he stays true to that vision. Many apps, but especially Chinese ones, have ads on the open screen.  WeChat, with its over 1Bn MAU, would for sure be able to charge for that valuable advertising space, or at least use it to promote its own features or something.  But it doesn’t. Because Allen thinks that would be awful. If WeChat is your friend, then that would be like turning to your friend and seeing an ad plastered on their face.

Y: What a horrible image. But that’s why despite having launched branded advertising in Moments a few years ago, they show up few and far in between, nothing like the amount you’d see in Facebook or Instagram.

[17:18] R: Actually, I so rarely open Moments now I wouldn’t know if the advertising has increased in frequency.  And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way. If you search online, articles titled “WeChat Moments Anxiety” or 微信朋友圈焦虑 have been around since 2016.  In 2018, a People’s Daily editorial further criticized how fake everyone was and how deliberately people cultivated their online persona through WeChat Moments.  I definitely agree. Which is why I haven’t personally posted in months.

Y: Similar situation here– I only post every few months now, and even my mom made it a New Years Resolution to stop checking her Moments because it just makes her anxious! Well, obviously Allen saw all these critiques as well.  And it wasn’t just Moments, but also the Official Accounts that were under attack, with many signs that open rates had decreased precipitously and users were simply not engaging in the same way with the content as they had initially.  Which I think brings us naturally to the changes that were implemented in this version, version 7.0.

R: So when we were recounting the history of WeChat just now, we had stopped at version 4.0, which brought about Moments function and that was in April 2012.  About a year and a half later, 5.0 was launched and with it came sticker stores, voice-to-text, bar code scanning, etc. About a year after that, was version 6.0 and users could now have the ability to send videos in chat as well as have access to an improved game store.  Somewhere between 5 and 6, the red packet function went live, and it was actually only two years ago did Mini apps or 小程序 came on-line . But as we mentioned before, it’s actually been over 4 years since 6.0 was launched! So what has changed in 7.0?

Y: Well, for one, the color palette changed.  Before WeChat had more of a grayish background, but now, in 7.0, it’s almost white.  This drew the ire of a lot of users actually, who didn’t like the more “flattened” look, although as others noted, it’s very Apple or iOS like in terms of its design sensibility.  

[19:49] R: But that didn’t stop some stubborn users who were so unhappy with WeChat 7.0 that a bunch of guides popped up on the interwebs on how to roll back your phone to an earlier version using third party download sites.

Y: And for another, as we already mentioned earlier, there were major changes to how content was to be shared, for both video and text.  Let’s start off with video, which is easier to explain. Remember we said earlier that the carefully crafted WeChat Moments posts was becoming a source of anxiety for users?

R: Yeah that’s actually very similar to how social media have been shown to affect mental health negatively in the West as well.  As Allen noted in his annual speech last night, over 100mm WeChat users, or 10% of active users, selected the option “only display the last 3 days of my Moments.”

Y: He interpreted this to mean that the lack of privacy of the Moments was getting to these users, and they were tired of curating a virtual life for display to be seen by all.  As contact lists get larger and larger, I’m at almost 3,000. He thought Moments were more like a busy public plaza where lots of people pass through and it can be quite intimidating to be constantly broadcasting about oneself, which is why people start crafting personas instead of staying authentic.  

[21:15] R: This was also the same speech, by the way, in which he said Twitter is a great product, presumably because tweets are as ephemeral as they get, and maybe there’s less self-consciousness associated with that.  I’m not sure I agree, although I do like Twitter personally more than almost any other social media platform.

Y: Allen’s solution? A disappearing video called 时刻视频 that’s basically exactly like Facebook Stories.  In fact, you also get a blue circle on your avatar if you post a story, although unlike in Facebook, the one in WeChat is much smaller and discreetly placed to the bottom right.  Will the fleeting nature of this feature make people more brave about sharing their true selves? It’s hard to say.

R: In any case, so few people are using it right now that it may just take a few more updates before Allen and team hit upon the right formula.  The mistake Allen says he made when he first made Moments was that he failed to separate the photo album utility of the tool from its use as a social media feed.  One is private, and the other is public. But he is calling this disappearing video 0.1, so he’s definitely in it for the long haul, and it sounds like he is determined to cultivate this feature to be a successful one.

Y: OK so that’s video, another major aspect of the update was text-related, or article sharing.  Like for video, a whole new set of features have been developed, and they are for the purpose of enhancing content sharing.  Currently, articles are either pushed to readers via official accounts, or shared in Moments or in chat. But as we already know from earlier, official account open rates had been declining, anecdotally to 5% or even lower, and the growth rate of official accounts had been decelerating.

[23:14] R: Of course, a large part of this is because the official account system was not set up as a distribution or publishing platform as much as it was a simple subscription mechanism.  Such a simple system meant that latecomers found it difficult to get traffic and this sometimes resulted in people cheating the system by plagiarizing or straight up spreading fake news.

Y: To solve this problem, there are two obvious ways to distribute content — machine-powered or people-powered, and Allen chose the latter.  The machine or AI-powered camp is represented by Toutiao, or Bytedance. Allen has said that algorithms are superior to people. But then, why did he choose people-powered discovery instead of Bytedance’s algorithm driven system?

R: Well, partly it is because WeChat already has one of the most extensive social graphs in the world.  But part of it is because of Allen’s idealism. Yeap, that idealism again. He has been known to say – 算法比人聪明,但是人却能做到善良。That translates roughly to: “Yeah, algorithms are smarter than humans, but humans can be kind, whereas algorithms, I guess it is implied, aren’t.”

Y: I don’t know if we can necessarily rely on kindness, but if I’m having to put my name on an article as endorsing its quality, then I am much more likely to think twice about what I’m recommending versus a machine that’s simply counting views or time spent and floating up the most vulgar and shocking content there is.

[24:55] R: And that’s exactly how 好看, which really should be translated as “good, recommended reads,” works although it shows up in English WeChat as simply “Wow.” Instead of a thumbs up or heart like on most other social networks, the symbol for “wow-ing” an article is a six-sided star which I’m assuming represents the “six degrees of separation.”

Y: In addition to clicking on the star and affirming your endorsement of the content, you can also write a comment with more detailed viewpoints.  So far I definitely find myself discovering some really interesting stuff from my friends, but also a lot of junk I’m not interested in, so it remains to be seen whether or not social graphs and interest graphs really do overlap that neatly.  But it’s definitely a worthwhile experiment, and it does seem to be a step towards making sure that the right content gets discovered.

R: Of course, there is also a list of articles simply called “Recommended” that is not attached to your social graph. But I don’t know about you, Ying-ying, but I personally rarely open that up because it seems to be mostly lowest-denominator content and has really little overlap with my personal interests.

Y: Me neither. And that’s really the bulk of the changes made to 7.0.  Of course, there’s also this full screen chat alert that basically makes it impossible to miss an incoming message from a specified contact if you turn it on, but unless I’m waiting for an important message, I don’t see myself using that very often.  

[26:28] R: Nope, that’s not a highlight of this update.  But since we went over a lot of detail, like we usually do, let’s summarize for our listeners the key takeaways of this latest and greatest WeChat update.  So, Ying-ying, you go first with what we learned today.

Y: Well the first thing we learned was that WeChat’s creator, Allen Zhang, is an artist and philosopher at heart.  In fact, he calls all his products works of art and he really cares about the user experience much more so than business metrics.  He doesn’t give too many talks, but when he did last night, a few thousand people stayed up until midnight hanging onto every word of his four-hour speech.

R: And in that four-hour speech he reinforced the fact that WeChat has two primary missions — the first one of which, is to be a great tool for the users it serves, and that to do so, WeChat must constantly evolve and change.  I think we can map to this particular mission statement the new Facebook Stories-like disappearing video sharing function, which is Allen’s attempt to make authentic connection more accessible given how deliberately crafted people’s Moments feeds have become and how inauthentic and fake.  

Y: The second mission, according to Allen, is to allow creators to demonstrate their value.  What does that mean? It means that Allen wants people who make great content to be discovered, and presumably he wants them to make a living doing so. Nowhere does this show up more strongly than in the new “Wow” social reading feed, which allows you to see what your friends are reading and recommending, even if you don’t follow that Official Account currently.   

[28:15] R: In his speech, he also said that the WeChat Miniapp and Games platforms will also be upgraded to become more decentralized and to allow for easier content discovery.  You know what? Maybe I’m just gullible but I’m pretty convinced by his speech. I really do feel that he has my best interests at heart and is not just trying to have me live my entire life inside WeChat like some other internet companies – ahem Bytedance – want me to do. What do you think Yingying?

Y: Well, I’m definitely hopeful. The song that played inside the app when WeChat 7.0 was first launched and opened includes the lyrics “Whether the words are the latest jokes, or are old wisdom, I am still always alone.” Allen is telling us that although he knows we are all eventually alone, we do all seek to be connected. And despite its imperfections, WeChat is a pretty good tool for doing just that.

[29:22] R: OK, that’s all for this week folks! Thanks for listening. As a reminder, episodes will now be available every Friday instead of Wednesdays.  And as usual, we really enjoyed putting this together, and we are always open to any comments or suggestions. You can find us on twitter at thepandaily, at techbuzzchina, and my personal Twitter account is RUIMA.Y: And my Twitter is spelled GINYGINY. TechBuzz China by Pandaily is powered by the Sinica Podcast Network. Pandaily.com is an English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” Our producers are Shaw Wan and Kaiser Kuo.