Life in the Peoples Republic of WeChat

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Ive had WeChat on my phone since a vacation to Beijing last year, when friends there basically ordered me to download it. More than 760 million people utilize it regularly worldwide; its basically how people in China communicate now. Its actually a lot of trouble not to utilize WeChat when youre there, and socially weird, like refusing to wear shoes.

In China, 90 percentage of internet users connect online through a mobile device, and those people on average spend more than a third of their internet time in WeChat. Its fundamentally a messaging app, but it also serves many of the functions of PayPal, Yelp, Facebook, Uber, Amazon, Expedia, Slack, Spotify, Tinder, and more. People use WeChat to pay rent, situate parking, expend, make a doctors appointment, find a one-night stand, donate to charity. The police in Shenzhen pay rewards through WeChat to people who rat out traffic violatorsthrough WeChat.

Illustrator: Steph Davidson

Its nothing special to look at, as far as smartphone apps run. The first screen that opens is the chat creek; a menu at the bottom get you to other areas, like a WeChat wallet and a few moments creek for Facebook-like posts. Companies, media outlets, celebrities, and brands also open official accounts that you can follow to get news and promotions. The design stands out only for its relative simplicity and calm; the online mainstream in China is overpopulated with weird click-bait and manic GIFs.

Zhang Xiaolong, WeChats creator and something of a cult figure in China, has called WeChat a lifestyle. I rolled my eyes when I first heard that. Then I went back to Beijing in April.

My colleague Lulu Chen, who encompasses WeChats parent , Tencent, has sent me the phone numbers of some potential contactsbut why bellow when WeChat is so much easier? I use the chat function to set up sessions during my visit. One of my contacts mentions a WeChat convention the day after I arrive, and so, on a Sunday afternoon, I show up at the Design Service Center, an industrial-chic space in the historic city center. The mob is largely young, a mix of Chinese and expatriate, and the mood is festive. Free wine stands three bottles deep on the bar.

I drift by company displays and find myself at the table for Yoli, a business that offers a kind of speed dating for English learners: 15 -minute on-demand tutoring conferences with native speakers through WeChat. Two sheets of paper taped to the table each bear a pixelated QR code: Scan one to become a teacher, scan the other to become a student.

The Chinese term for this ritual, sao yi sao , rapidly becomes familiar. Everyone and almost everything on WeChat has a QR code, and sao yi sao-ing with your phone is both constant and strangely fulfilling. James, a tanned American with unruly blond hair who mans the Yoli table, is here to host a workshop called How We Built a WeChat App& Recovered Our Development Cost Within 24 hrs. He scans my code, which dedicates him my WeChat profile and also generated by the equivalent of a friend petition; I accept, and we agree to meet during the course of its week, skipping right over the old-fashioned niceties of last names and business cards.

The presentations are about to start, and plane lag is kicking in. I hurry to the coffee counter for an iced Americano. Theres a QR code in a plastic photo frame. The woman ahead of me is scanning it. I try it, andWeChat fail. Ive entered a credit card into WeChat, but it wont run, and my WeChat wallet is empty. I feel distinctly self-conscious fumbling around for yuan. Ive been in WeChat-era China one day, and already cash fund feels embarrassing.

Shake, which connects the user with a random person to message with .

On Monday, I take the subway to satisfy Zhu Xiaoxiao , whos built a WeChat-based fitness business. On the develop, I notice a woman moving methodically down the car, stopping to talk to the other passengers. Is she praying? Witnessing? Merely when she stops before the woman next to me do I get it: Shes asking for QR scans, trying to get adherents for a WeChat official account.

Zhu is an open-faced, bulked-up 25 -year-old in a gray T-shirt, blue shorts, and red sneakers. He left China for school in England a skinny child and returned in 2012 a fitness buff with the germ of a business planto make and sell protein powder. He and a friend developed a formula, put in manufacturing and a website, and began marketing online. In late 2013, Zhu started looking for investors, and the next February he got 2 million yuanroughly $300,000 from a seed money in Beijing. At the recommend of his investors, he stopped selling the protein powder and refocused on building a following of health fanatics, opening a WeChat official account that pushed articles on exercising and diet and lots of pictures of six-pack abs. The company, FitTime, rapidly racked up 400,000 followers and an additional 9.8 billion yuan in funding, and launched a standalone app.

As WeChat boomed, Zhu developed a fitness camp on WeChat, an alternative to expensive personal training in a physical gym for people already on WeChat all the time. Sign up, and you get grouped into a chat with 15 people of similar height and weight and a personal trainer whos there to motivate you( by message and emoji) to stick to the diet and video workout plans. FitTime charges 1,000 yuan for 28 days, and more than 5,000 people have signed up for at least one month.

Stories of sudden success on WeChat abound these days , and Xi Jiutians is another. Shes wearing oversize nerd-cool glass and bright-red lipstick when we satisfy for lunch on Tuesday at Cafe Groove. The place looks like something out of my Brooklyn neighborhood, the mismatched chairs, the random shelves of books, even the prices $10 -plus for an avocado salad. This is all familiaruntil I go to pay with WeChat, and my credit card is rejected again. Im definitely losing some face here.

Xi was an interaction designer at Microsoft in Beijing before get laid off. She tried designing a smartwatch, then consulting for startups. She also began writing on Zhihu, a site similar to Quora, about makeup and scalp care. In early 2015 she opened Hibettermeas in, Hi, better mea WeChat account devoted to the same topics. After a couple of months, her WeChat fans began exhorting her to sell beauty products. Defining up a shop on WeChats platform took her a couple of days. Xi, like Zhu, had an easy hour discovering fund when she began appearing last fall. Shed been at it about a week when a friend of a friend put her in touch through WeChat with Eric Tong of Pros& Partners Capital in Shanghai. After theyd messaged on WeChat for about 15 minutes( a lot of their discussion was about tattoos ), Tong told her to stop her search and perpetrated 4 million yuan.

Xi introduces us on WeChat, and Tong answers instantaneously. But when I try to set up telephone calls, he dismisses me. People seem to talk on the phone less than they used tothough theyre happy to leave one another WeChat audio messages. I ask, by chats, how Hibetterme fits with what he looks for in an investment. In a flurry of abbreviations, he says hes looking for professionally generated content across platforms like WeChat. Its an investment theme thats very, very hot, thanks to the Papi impact. Papi is Papi Jiang, known for her speed-talking comedic video monologues. In April, she auctioned off the first ad place to appear in one of her videos for 22 billion yuan. Um, bubble? Tongs fund stands at about 200 billion yuan now. He expects to have 600 million by the end of the year.

The basic message stream .

Even those who arent directly selling things or operating official accounts on WeChat use it constantly for work. A friend who runs restaurants in Beijing operates his entire operation, almost everything except eating and drinking, on WeChat. He trades dish ideas and discuss kitchen operations with the chefs in one group, while his accountant holds him informed of pays on another. Theres even a group to be given to flower care at one of the restaurants.( WeChat introduced a formal enterprise version in April .) Yoli, the tutoring company, takes the all-WeChat model to extremes. James, the American I satisfied on Sundayhis last name, I ultimately find out, is LaLonde; hes from Texasmoved to Beijing to found a gaming company in 2011. He chose last August to combine his interest in language learning with an experiment in creating a business operate entirely on WeChat. It constructed sense; he rarely left the app as it was. Hes fulfilled Luke Priddy, one of his two co-founders, only twice in person. Priddy lives in New York and coordinates the growing cadre of teachers. The median wait time for a tutoring conference is 20 seconds. The tag line for teachers is teach on the beach; Priddy once conducted a tutoring conference while floating in a pool.

On Wednesday, I need to get at Shanghai for a day of sessions and cant decide whether to fly or take the develop. Buying train tickets with an app may not voice revolutionary, but in China, I promise you, it is. The intricacies of buying tickets used to occupy whole sections of guidebooks and require feverish strategizing before holidays. Opening WeChat, I check the train schedules and get to the point of booking an overnight trainbut then decide to fly. I cant quite shake my dread of the Chinese develop system.

WeChat has constructed Beijing a very different place from the city I lived in from 2006 to 2009. Theres so much less standing in line and waiting, particularly at the bank. Cash used to be monarch. I paid my rent in cash, my bills, every eatery and store. Now people shoot fund around on their telephones( not all on WeChat, of course, but a lot of it ).

Theres also a lot less getting lost. Taking a taxi in China used to require getting the driver to call your destination to verify exactly where you were going. On this journey, everyone I visit falls a map into a message, with the place pinned, and I show that to the driver. The one time I get turned around, strolling to an interview, I open real-time location in the WeChat conversation Im having with my host. She receives me on the map and guides me.

Nobodys too cool to use WeChat, or too uncool. Its how entire households keep in touch. A tech executive told me his mother, at 80 -plus, use it for everything; a marketing entrepreneur said his computer-illiterate parents and his daughters, ages 3 and 5, employ it.

The WeChat wallet .

By Thursday morning, Ive decided something important: I dont like my QR code. The code WeChat randomly generated for me looks like a piece of candy in a blue wrapper. When I click on Change Style in my profile, it goes from bad to worsea piece of toast? A cat? A pink automobile? Finally, some algorithm spews out a green, leaf-shaped design. Ill take it.

Ive also given up on using my credit card. Its accepted by WeChat, and Ive set up a PIN and all that, but I guess WeChat cant change the fact that few local industries take international cards. WeChat has given life in China a smoothness, a quality of efficiency I never could have imagined. But for a foreigner like me, at least, its still a work in progress.

I message a Chinese friend whos in the U.S. on a fellowship and ask for a loan. Within minutes, hes sent me two hong bao , or red envelopesa play on the red envelopes traditionally used to give gifts of money. They arrive as chat messages that tell, Good fortune and good luck! Youve received a red envelope. Once I click on them, I have 200 yuan in my WeChat wallet.

Typically, you hand out red envelopes of money to younger relatives and friends during the Lunar New Yearto couples getting married, for childrens birthdays. Now hong bao are usedI dont want to say willy-nilly, but sometimes just for fun.

Its hard to tell whats great strategy and whats luck in WeChats success, but this hong bao system is genius. The company wasnt first with electronic hong bao; that would be Alipay, the pay platform from Alibaba. But when WeChat introduced its own system just before the Chinese New Year in 2014, it added a gaming part. When you send money to a group of people, one luck winner within the group gets a bigger windfall than the rest, while a few get nothing at all. People love these components of chance, apparently, because users of WeChats wallet jumped by 100 million in a month. The figure is now 300 million. For Chinese New Year 2016, 516 million people delivered 32 billion red envelopes.

Midmorning, I go to the Global Mobile Internet Conference in the China National Convention Center. Hundreds of speakers, 20 summits, and a music festivalits Chinas South by Southwest, or trying to be. Im exhausted from running from floor to floor to catch sessions. I stop at a coffeehouse on the second floor to get coffee, my new WeChat riches teed up.

They dont take WeChat. At a tech conference.

The next day, I return to the conference to talk to E Hao, co-CEO of different groups that organizes it. Im accosted in the elevator by a young woman who sees that Im foreign, explains that her company coordinates exchanges with foreign companies, and demands to scan my WeChat QR code. Nice to meet you! she sings, striding off without ever telling me her name or asking for mine.

E Hao is hoarse after a late night at the events opening jamboree at the Olympic Birds Nest stadium. His heavy metal band, CXO, newly formed with different fellow executives, performed for the first time. He proves me his WeChat message stream: 3,015 unread messages. He says hes been relying on hong bao to thank and motivate his overworked employees through the long days running up to the event, sending out 1,000 yuan at a time. He sends me 100 yuan to demonstrate. Im not sure about the etiquette. Is this for demo only? Should I send it back? I do, eventually.

When I get back to New York, I join a FitTime WeChat boot camp. The remainder of my own group seems to be Chinese students examining in the U.S ., including the trainer, whos in Iowa. First, theres the horror of taking a selfie in spandex and sending it to a stranger, then the awkwardness of photographing every dinner, with one hand held in a fist beside the plate for view on serving sizing. If Im lucky, the trainer sends me a thumbs-up emoji in response. She often has to remind me of the rules, though: No kimchi, for exampletoo much salt, have contributed to bloating. The whole thing is vaguely humbling. On the other hand, Ive lost a few pounds, and I now know the characters for chia seeds in Chinese. And Im on WeChat all day long.

With Lulu Chen

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