New WeChat Update Sparks Privacy Concerns — But What Can We Do?

On Dec. 22nd, WeChat launched its IOS 7.0 version on Apple App Store. WeChat is like Facebook, What’sApp, Apple Pay and Uber all in one. The latest version of the most popular application in China made several major changes that users may or may not like. Features such as the Instagram-style stories, major changes in WeChat articles, significant changes on friend lists, are going to make WeChat a vastly different platform than the one we’re so used to.

WeChat New Updates for iOS

The most significant change is that the 7.0 version of the WeChat application implemented is the Instagram-style story feature. After Weibo adopted a story feature earlier in 2017, WeChat finally decided to follow up with this feature that originated from Snapchat. Users will be able to record a short video and publish a story that is available for 24 hours. After a day has passed, the video is automatically deleted.

It might be a fun feature for young WeChat users to try. But even for Chinese users who are only familiar with Chinese social media applications, the story feature is not something completely new. Weibo has been using the story function on its mobile application for more than a year. And for those who also have Snapchat or Instagram accounts, the 24-hour story feature is old news and WeChat is late to the party.

It remains uncertain whether the story feature will offer WeChat any real benefits. Perhaps it is a grand experiment for the WeChat product team to test out new strategies to get users to stay on the application, instead of spending times on rival applications such as Tik Tok, Weibo, or video applications like Youku or iQiyi.

Compared to short videos on Tik Tok, WeChat stories provide video sharing among friends, rather than strangers. The feature could disincentivize WeChat users, especially young users, to switch to Tik Tok to upload videos. Thus, this new feature could potentially have a large negative impact on rivalling applications.

A day has a limited amount of hours and applications are fighting to seize as many hours of users’ attention as possible each day. Tik Tok has been successful in the past year in grabbing people’s attention with its short videos that cater to the short attention span of the modern user. So to retrieve users that are now spending more time on TikTok, WeChat is now combining its social networking features with the story feature, hoping this could compel users to remain on the platform.

SEE ALSO: Inside Look into the WeChat Catfight between Tencent and Toutiao CEOs

The changes in WeChat articles are also revolutionary to WeChat users. Instead of having the original number of likes on the bottom right of the article, the ‘like’ feature has now been exchanged for a feature named ‘haokan’, also known as ‘good read’, Once a user clicks the button, the article will be recommended to all of their friends. If you pressed the button, all of your friends will know that you’ve read and liked the article and they might be tempted to take a look.

Once a user clicks the “Good Read”, the article will be recommended to all of their friends

This could be a good way to find people with similar mindsets. The new feature allows you to see who in your friend list shares your views and opinions on certain issues and interests. But this could also have a negative side: It reveals the differences between people and could create conflict. What if you find out that your in-laws opinions vastly differs from yours on issues you feel very strongly about? It could be detrimental to maintaining positive and healthy interpersonal relationships.

For users who highly value their privacy, the recent changes on WeChat may be a huge compromise. While it might be an open secret that all applications store user information like who you’ve been chatting with, what articles you’ve read and so on, the fact that WeChat is now sharing part of these data with fellow users can sound scary: People will now hesitate to click or comment on certain topics. The Internet used to be a place where people could browse freely with a sense of privacy, but that ‘safe space’ is now shrinking rapidly by size and capacity.

Supporters of WeChat’s latest changes suggest that WeChat and WeChat articles are losing against the algorithm-driven style of information feed. While algorithms and content feeds might now have the upper hand in the competition between WeChat and TikTok, WeChat is making a bold move by following a path developed by its main competitors. At the end of the day, WeChat and TikTok are two vastly different products. While the two companies behind them are trying hard to win more market shares using their own advantages and leading products, the strategy of following the competitors does not sound too promising.

While Tencent, who owns WeChat, and Bytedance, mother company of TikTok, each hold some dominance on messaging application and short video platforms, the two companies are constantly trying out new products to challenge the competitor’s leading product. The Tencent developed Weishi and Bytedance’s Flipchat show that both companies are trying to challenge its main competitors on their dominant products. This could possibly explain the major changes that we see in the WeChat update: More time for WeChat means less time for other applications, and particularly, for Bytedance products.

Tik Tok & Weishi
Tik Tok & Weishi

People’s feelings about the update differ. Some see it as a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to explore newly developed features without having to leave the comfort of the most popular application in China. Yet for others, the changes may have brought discomfort, WeChat was doing fine so why change a successful concept? But at the end of the day, users don’t really have a choice. Their likes, or dislikes, will not be able to change WeChat’s new direction. When living in China it’s impossible to not use WeChat. It is deeply integrated into our daily lives from our social networks to payment systems, taxi hailing, and e-commerce mini-programs, WeChat has successfully managed to become an intrinsic component in the daily lives of the Chinese.

It is a sad reality to see that regardless of users’ preferences, WeChat is a media platform users in China cannot live without. The most important fact is, before discussing the struggles between Tencent and its competitors, that the nearly monopolizing market leaves consumers with little choice when it comes to instant messaging applications. It’s been proven again and again that new messaging apps don’t stand a chance against WeChat, thus it’s evident that Tencent’s dominance in the field will last for many years to come.

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