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How WeChat’s design turned it into a global powerhouse—and a Trump target

A researcher of culturally sensitive design explains WeChat’s significance for the Chinese diaspora and what will be lost if the U.S. succeeds in banning it.

How WeChat’s design turned it into a global powerhouse—and a Trump target
[Photo: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images]
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On the day before WeChat was ordered to be banned, my octogenarian parents, who live in China, insisted on having a video chat with their granddaughter and me. They were worried that they would not be able to see us as conveniently after we were forced to switch to regular phone calls.

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The app is safe for now: The same day of what we thought would be our final video call on WeChat, a California judge temporarily blocked an executive order aiming to force the removal of the app from Google and Apple’s app stores. The Trump administration continues to push for the ban, citing national security concerns that WeChat “allow[s] the Chinese Communist party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.”

Since Trump’s executive order banning WeChat and TikTok, some of the 20 million WeChat users from the Chinese and Southeast Asian diaspora community have been worried about losing a lifeline to stay in contact with their aging parents, relatives, and friends back at home, myself included. While WeChat is most dominant in China, the instant messaging and social network app is an indispensable tool of mobile communication for the Chinese-speaking community globally. There are two versions of WeChat running from different data servers: One is called Weixin, operating in China for mainland Chinese users; another, referred to as WeChat, is an international version to serve overseas users. As of today, Weixin and WeChat combined boast about 1.21 billion monthly active users, trailing behind WhatApp’s 2 billion and Facebook Messenger’s 1.3 billion.

For the larger Chinese diaspora community dispersed in the U.S., many WeChat groups help people to connect virtually, exchange updates, build friendships, stay in contact with their relatives back at home, and foster participation in this election year. During the pandemic, the WeChat platform has played an even more important role for Chinese-American mom-and-pop shops, small restaurants, and self-employed contractors. These minority entrepreneurs rely on WeChat to reach out to their clients and take orders from their ethnic communities.

Why is WeChat so popular among the Chinese American community? My new book on global social media design includes a study of the global competition of four leading messaging apps, including WeChat from China, WhatsApp from the U.S., Line from Japan, and KakaoTalk from South Korea. I found, to a great extent, the success of WeChat comes from design features that appreciate the nuances of Chinese culture, in the same way that Line and KakaoTalk were able to win the hearts of Japanese users and Korean users respectively.

WeChat serves the communication needs of Chinese-speaking users much better than others because it reflects the reserved nature of Chinese culture. Contrary to Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or Line, users’ online status is invisible, and there are no read receipts. Because of this simple design decision, WeChat’s users are not pressured to respond to messages immediately. They are “wearing a Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak,” as described by one WeChat designer I interviewed during my research.

The mobile wallet feature, which will be banned according to the executive order, was also designed with a deep consideration of Chinese heritage. The mobile pay feature was introduced as a red-packet (hongbao) game in the 2014 Spring Festival season. According to the Chinese tradition, working adults are expected to give red packets filled with money to their elders and kids in holiday seasons, sending well-wishes and sharing happiness. Connecting the mobile wallet feature with this age-old cultural ritual contributed to the successful conversion of millions of Chinese mobile phone users into users of WeChat Pay in just one holiday season: 16 million red packets were sent on a peak day after its launch, and the number of people using WeChat payments soared from 30 million to 100 million within a month. WeChat reported 800 million monthly active users of WeChat Pay in Q4 2019.

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At a time when American society is engaging in a deep reflection of institutional biases and systemic racism toward people of color, the government should reconsider the decision to ban an essential communication service that matters to 20 million American residents. Cybersecurity experts question whether banning WeChat would actually reduce national security concerns, stating a ban would only provide “minimal privacy and security benefits.” The ban effect is rippling: American oil company Chevron has already asked its global workforce to delete the WeChat app.

Of course, WeChat has its own problems—for instance, with content censorship—but this hasn’t been as destructive to American society writ large as homegrown company Facebook. WeChat’s real-time censorship algorithms are rapidly evolving, and they could impact foreign users in the future as they do mainland Chinese users currently. With no real alternatives existing, WeChat has become a vital communication link to China, even human rights activists use it, despite their chat messages being censored.

In recent years more attention has been brought to the bias and discrimination built into everyday artifacts, such as automatic soap dispensers that fail to recognize dark-skinned hands and motion-sensing games that are unable to identify dark-skinned faces. We’ve also seen technology built on hate speech, such as an anti-Semitic browser extension that singles out Jewish names on web pages. Banning the download of a culturally sensitive social media platform in 2020 will be a huge blow to those hard-working immigrants who rely on WeChat’s social media platform to sidestep language and culture barriers and build their businesses. For many WeChat users who value Chinese heritage and want to stay in contact with their relatives and friends, they remain caught in a dilemma caused by the geopolitical standoff: Social media apps made outside of China are blocked in China, and the one made in China will likely be banned in the U.S.

As a researcher who has studied culturally sustaining design for more than two decades, I’m worried that governments will continue to use the rhetoric of national security to impose insensitive bans on other marginalized user communities in the future.


Huatong Sun is an associate professor of digital media and global design at University of Washington Tacoma and the author of Global Social Media Design: Bridging Differences Across Cultures (2020) and Cross-Cultural Technology Design: Creating Culture-Sensitive Technology for Local Users (2012).