If you’ve ever wondered where what direction that tech is taking the world, you only need pay attention to the People’s Republic of China. The land once synonymous with cheap rip-offs has become a guide to a future we are all going to live.
The Chinese internet is something more of an intranet in that it is largely walled off from the Western world by an incredibly complex system of filters and blocks affectionately known as The Golden Shield.
This firewall blocks sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, or any foreign site the governing Communist party feels it cannot control. In place of these the ever so industrious Chinese have created copycat versions of these apps in that have grown into huge and successful companies.
In place of Google there’s Baidu, for Twitter there’s Sina Weibo, Youtube- Youku and the list of these copycat apps is seemingly endless in the lagoon that is the Chinese internet to the ocean of the rest of the world. But the appeal of these apps and the success with which they have developed has led many Western tech companies to start paying attention to the Chinese model if you will, even copying them in some cases.
Perhaps the best example of this has been the super app WeChat. It exists like a Swiss army knife that basically puts a plethora of features at the push of a button and significantly more. Imagine, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, Uber, Takealot, Instagram, Paypal, Tinder and MrDelivery in one single app. Now imagine further, because WeChat does things we haven’t even imagined needing yet and may never take full exploits off outside of China. Things like booking a hospital appointment, or investment services, or heat maps that show you how busy your favourite shopping mall is at any given time. The list is seemingly endless. Yet the incorporation of all these features into one app is the appeal of WeChat as opposed to the variety.
Why Should I Care?
Let’s imagine a scenario where you’re at home and your sneakers are dirty. You can open the app and after a few buttons, a guy shows up at your door with a bucket and shoe care kit. Your shoes get cleaned and they look great so you take a photo, tag the shoe cleaning business and share it with your friends. You haven’t left the app.
It a friday and one of your friends sees your post on WeChat while slacking off at work and decides she doesn’t have any clean shoes to wear later that night. So she clicks the tag on the image and orders the same service. Within seconds the guy with the bucket and and shoe care kit is on his way to her house. She’s content with the service she got and after a short exchange on video call, she pays him instantly via WeChat and everyone is happy.
She opens a chat with you to thank you for the ‘referral’. While chatting she lets you in on her plans to go out for the evening to a new cocktail bar in town. Now you have plans for the evening as well.
Its later in the evening and you’ve spent all day getting ready and you look good. You order a taxi to take you to the cocktail bar in town to meet with your friend. Her shoes are clean and she decides she’s going to walk, on her way there she pays for the first round of drinks. On his way away from your friend's house, the tekkie washer invests the money he earned from both of you into a wealth management product. Neither you nor your friend nor the tekkie washer has left the app.
When you both get there, the app tells the bar you’ve arrived and your WeChat profile image shows up on a screen. Your drinks are served and you seem to like the cocktail enough to post a great review about the place. You’re already on your phone so you transfer your share of the first round to your friend and you order the next round and pay instantly. Neither you, your friend, the tekkie washer, the taxi driver nor the cocktail bar have left the app.
Other than the security guards at the barman who makes the drinks, all the people there are patrons. This cocktail bar has no menus, no waitrons and no cashier. The only way to communicate is WeChat
This might be hypothetical but it presents an idea of a regular WeChat user in China.
WeChat rolls so many concepts into one simple app and by doing so dictates virality itself; businesses can go viral, not just pics of your city break or a funny Tweet. WeChat is a medium with which companies in varying industries get the push provided by the social network. A network of almost a billion people in China alone.
While it might sound enticing, using a single app to schedule an oil change, set a date or notarise a document also enables the service to collect an unprecedented amount of your personal data. They know everything there is to know about your social interactions and the contents of your social interactions, your spending habits whether online or not. They know your income as well as your credit. The list goes on indefinitely. This is every advertiser's dream tool but it is information that isn’t owned by the user and so they are neither privy to it nor have any rights to its dissemination, from public to private entities. In a country with a long list of human rights violations a government that knows as little as possible about you is ideal.
This Is Not Just A Chinese Problem?
A number of Western tech companies are actively replicating features on super apps like WeChat, selling convenience to the users yet disguising just how powerful of a data collection tool this ultimately becomes. The problem arises in the concentration of so much data about every single movement you make in the hands of a few (companies/governments) thereby creating the means with which an Orwellian state can exist.
How do you think the development of Chinese tech companies is going to affect the way we live our lives? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Thank you for visiting Base64!