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  • Ashley Galina Dudarenok

As Facebook looks to WeChat, China’s digital world is wowing the West, and globalisation is no longe

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent article about Facebook’s future has attracted wide attention. It’s believed that his plan for Facebook as a “privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform” is inspired by WeChat and that the goal is for Facebook to become a similar super app. The fact that he also commented on a re-posting of an 2015 article, suggesting that he should have learned from WeChat earlier, has furthered this theory.

This is not only a new direction for an internet giant that influences social media and the wider culture, it’s the first time that a Silicon Valley tech tycoon is indicating that a Chinese digital ecosystem is worth learning from and emulating.

But it’s not the first time Facebook is emulating WeChat. In 2016, Facebook launched “Instant Games” within Messenger. Games had been on WeChat for some time before that and Tencent, WeChat’s parent, is one of the biggest gaming companies in the world, despite recent setbacks.

There are key moments when an invention or product revolutionises society: the telephone; the automobile; television; the aeroplane; personal computers; smartphones.

Now, it’s the digital ecosystem. Facebook is one such ecosystem – a platform with multiple functions that people return to use again and again. For some, it functions as a mini-internet, to such a degree that they don’t realise that Facebook operates through the internet. People can send private messages to friends, post photos that anyone who has a Facebook account can see, find out about local events, promote their business and more without leaving the site.

Facebook also has live streaming, Facebook Watch for TV series and Facebook Marketplace for buying and selling. It owns WhatsApp and Instagram, so those are also part of its ecosystem, and it has emulated popular functions from Snapchat and others.

Facebook is the dominant digital ecosystem in the West. WeChat is the dominant digital ecosystem in China.

From 2013 onwards, China’s digital universe ramped up. Mobile payments boomed

and start-ups sprang up bringing convenient e-commerce, mobile payment systems that worked just as swiftly online and off, and on-demand services available with the click of a few buttons. Linking it all together was the super app WeChat, with its estimated 1 billion-plus active accounts.

Called Weixin in China, it dominates the country’s social media. Its interface is in Chinese and it can only be downloaded from within the country with a China-based phone number. It has far more functions and abilities than the international version. It can be used to shop, request a taxi, order food, buy air tickets, check in for your flight, book a medical appointment, pay utility bills and even file an application for a divorce in some cities. No one ever needs to leave the app.

When one looks at statements that Zuckerberg has made and the initiatives the company has championed, it seems that one goal he’s had for Facebook is for it to be a smaller, more manageable version of the internet that people don’t leave … just like WeChat is now in China.

In some ways, Facebook has succeeded. However, there’s been pushback over the years, especially against its Free Basics initiative, which offered free internet access in developing countries but only to a few sites, Facebook being one of them.

Within China, WeChat has been able to achieve this not by restricting access (with the

exception of competitors such as Alibaba and sites already blocked by the Chinese government) but by creating more pathways. It hasn’t created a smaller internet, but a more connected one, available in one place, centred on personal needs and daily use.

China’s digital progress can also be seen in the app TikTok. The short video app is a leading platform in Asia, the US and the rest of the world. It has hit 500 million global monthly active users and was the most downloaded non-game app in the Apple Store in the first quarter of 2018.

Two weeks ago, Google unveiled its cloud gaming platform, Stadia, joining Microsoft and Tencent in the gaming space. Silicon Valley is now looking east. And so is Berkshire Hathaway. At the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in May 2018, Charlie Munger mentioned WeChat as the potential cloud on the horizon for credit card companies such as American Express.

For many years, globalisation has meant the global adoption of Western ways. Now it’s obvious that China is taking a leading role and repositioning itself on the world stage. According to a McKinsey report, a large part of China’s outbound investment focuses on manufacturing, AI and the internet of things. In the past decade, China’s internet giants have built their own AI labs and invested aggressively in AI companies around the world.

China’s relentless focus and investment in data has paid off. With more people than anywhere else in the world and a gigantic trove of data, it has enormous advantages in this area and is using them to supercharge research and development, as well as industrial and medical solutions.

The Chinese government is continuing progress on its “Belt and Road Initiative”, building infrastructure, investing in multiple countries and organisations, and

racing ahead in 5G technology. Huawei, which claims to have the world’s fastest 5G commercial solutions, will deploy an ultra-fast 5G telecom network in a Shanghai railway station in a world first.

Born in China but going global – is this the next trend?

Courtesy : South China Morning Post

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