If you want a good picture of what Facebook seems to be pivoting itself to become, start using that great everything app WeChat.
South Africans tend to think of it as just a messaging app, an alternative to WhatsApp. But the Tencent wonder service is infinitely more than that, especially in China, where it is effectively the only app you need to do just about everything. From messaging, to booking and paying for restaurants and taxi rides, WeChat lets you send money to friends, pay vending machines and make calls. You can do a number of government services through it, make a doctor’s appointment, and even search for library books.
WeChat has nearly 1.1bn monthly active users, according to Statista, making it the fifth largest social network in the world, behind Facebook (2.2bn), YouTube (1.9bn), WhatsApp (1.5bn) and Facebook Messenger (1.3bn). Instagram is sixth with 1bn users and Tencent’s other instant messaging service, QQ, is eight with 803m, according to the statistics website.
Launched in 2011 and known as Weixin in China, it was rebranded as WeChat for international audiences in 2012 and is part of the reason that Tencent – of which Naspers owns a third – has become such a powerhouse. It’s a super-app that has many other “mini-program” apps inside it.
But it is widely considered common cause that the Chinese government is able to monitor activity inside WeChat – although Tencent has never confirmed this – which sounds just like everything we know now about Facebook’s surveillance capitalism.
When Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook would “pivot” to “privacy” and start focussing on its messaging apps – WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram – and allow users across these separate platforms to communicate with each other, it immediately set alarm bells ringing for both privacy activists and antitrust authorities.
Last week there was another significant development when Zuckerberg announced that its chief product officer and the man many suspected might be the next CEO, Chris Cox, was leaving.
Cox has been Zuck’s trusted lieutenant and oversaw the growth of the news feed into its most important feature and the organising principle around which user interaction and the world’s greatest advertising platform has been built.
As Casey Newton, the Silicon Valley editor of The Verge, wrote: “when the history of Facebook is written, mark down March 14th, 2019 as the end of the News Feed era… with Cox’s departure, its days as the central organizing principle of Facebook are now officially behind it”.
The writing is clearly on the wall for Facebook’s old business model, especially after last years’ privacy scandals and reports last week that a criminal case is pending against it.
So, what will the Facebook of the future look like?
Very much like WeChat, many analysts are assuming. Arguably what made WeChat the giant it is the Chinese custom of giving red envelopes filled with money as gifts for special occasions, like holidays or weddings. Combined with the ability to make mobile payments, the digital version of these red envelopes is credited with using WeChat for transactions one of its dominant features.
Facebook is reportedly working on a cryptocurrency of its own, as are other messaging apps Telegram and Signal, and a potential new revenue stream: trapped inside the messaging megalith, people will transact with services, and book and pay for things as is done inside WeChat.
If Facebook is the walled-garden approach, WeChat is even more so – but has been successful in China because so many of the other dominant tech players (Google, YouTube, Twitter and blogging platforms) aren’t available.
Facebook is expected to try build a WeChat ecosystem inside its messaging apps, and their new encryption. But it’s the same Facebook that sold your personal data to make money from advertising. Don’t expect that to change, even if it pivots away from the news feed that fed its growth until now.
This article first appeared in Financial Mail