Five years ago, when she was a student at Peking University in Beijing, cash was king. Since then, the rapid rise of mobile payments has transformed China into an almost cashless society. That’s all thanks to WeChat, the multi-purpose messaging and social media app whose payment system has become ubiquitous. While WeChat’s market penetration in the West has been limited, its model might soon be emulated by Western social media giants. With WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram creating in-app shopping platforms of their own, WeChat may provide a glimpse of what’s to come for messaging apps the world over.
What is WeChat?
WeChat, known in China as Weixin, is the most dominant Chinese social network. The app fuses messaging, social media, and news with a payment platform. In many ways, it’s your typical social media app, featuring “Moments,” which lets users share social media updates with their followers, along with news, private messaging, and group chat.
What makes WeChat distinct, however, is the diverse range of “mini-apps” which live inside the platform. WeChat contains a mini-app for just about everything, from mobile games to Mobike (a bike sharing program). Users can hail cabs, find accommodations, order food, and shop online, all without ever leaving the app. It’s an all-in-one Facebook Messenger, Uber, Airbnb, Postmates, Amazon—and then some.
As evidenced by its one billion monthly active users, WeChat has become an integral part of Chinese daily life. Going without it is a challenge. “Being locked out means you don’t truly experience the quirks or intricacies of everyday life in China,” says Louise. While WeChat Pay and its competitor, Alipay, have recently opened their services to foreign credit card holders, she found that foreigners had limited access to either platform’s mini-apps during her three-month stay in Beijing. “There is a barrier between you and the ‘real’ China,” she says. “No food deliveries from the hundreds of Meituan motorbikes that zoom past each day, no testing out Luckin Coffee, Starbucks’ domestic rival, and—most disappointingly—no zipping around on a Mobike.”
Are Mini-Apps the Future?
The short answer: Maybe.
As WeChat consultancy Walk the Chat reports, “Mini-Apps...show some interesting features, but it’s still way too early to tell if they’ll be a thing.” WeChat is a unique case study—it may thrive as an all-in-one app behind China’s Great Firewall for the simple reason that users just don’t have that many other options. It’s difficult to say whether it would be as prominent if it had to compete with the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp.
But it is interesting to note that Western social media apps do seem to be moving in WeChat’s direction. Since 2016, Instagram’s Shopping feature has allowed users to shop tagged items directly from the app. WhatsApp began operating a payment platform in a limited number of countries in 2018 and has recently launched Catalogs, a kind of mobile storefront akin to WeChat’s mini-app shopping experiences. Facebook is slowly rolling our Facebook Pay to allow users to make payments within its suite of apps.
WeChat may very well provide a blueprint for what these apps could become. For now, Westerners seem content to flip between apps to access the services we use every day, but as social media and messaging platforms offer ever more convenience, that might change. Maybe in the near future, we’ll treat our favorite apps as one-stop shops too.