Social media in the west is broken. It’s increasingly come under fire for being deliberately addictive to users, as well as for gleefully spreading misinformation and destabilizing democracies around the world. When looking for ideas of how we can fix social media in the west, China may seem like an odd place to look for lessons. Isn’t Chinese social media just all about censorship? What could we possibly learn from that? It’s true that censorship is a big part of Chinese social media, but it’s also different in a number of other ways, from business models down to UI choices, that lead to very different outcomes. In this article I’m going to talk specifically about Wechat Moments, which is basically a social media feed, and Facebook since they’re what I’m most familiar with, and they’re close analogs to each other in the social media world.
Non-advertising-based Business Model
Facebook’s business model is all about advertising. It’s where the company gets most of its money, and it drives core decisions about how the service works and what experiences Facebook is optimized for. Facebook is criticized for being intentionally addicting to users, but Facebook has no choice here because the more time users spend in the Facebook the more ads they will see and thus the more revenue Facebook can generate. The ad-driven business model makes it impossible for them to change without hurting their profits.
This is fundamentally different with Wechat. When I first started using Wechat, I was shocked to see almost no ads. There are occasional ads, but nowhere near as many as on Facebook, and it’s a relatively new addition to the service. Tencent, the creator of Wechat, is at its heart a gaming company and doesn’t rely on advertising on Wechat for most of its revenue. As a result, it doesn’t care if users spend every waking moment inside of the app, just so long as everyone is using it.
While Facebook will constantly send push notifications to alert you that something happened you might want to take a look at, Wechat never sends push notifications for the social media feed at all. While Facebook is constantly trying to put the most engaging content in front of you, Wechat is happy to just show whatever was recently posted by your direct friends in chronological order. That’s not to say that Chinese users don’t spend a ton of time in Wechat - they certainly do - but my impression is that it’s not engineered to relentlessly push time-in-app in the way that Facebook is.
Private Only to your Direct Friends
In an ironic way, Wechat is more privacy-focused that Facebook. You can only see items and comments posted by your direct friends, and there’s no way to make this more broad. You can’t accidentally make your wechat feed fully public, for example. This can create strange situations where you can see that a friend of yours is having a conversation in comments with another person, but if you’re not direct friends with the person they’re talking with then you can only see half the conversation. At the same time, you never get massive viral threads with thousands of comments full of strangers harassing and arguing with each other like you get regularly on Facebook. You also can’t get into online debates with friends of your uncle like on Facebook.
Wechat is also very restrictive on the data shared with third-party apps, so it’s not possible to get a Cambridge Analytica type situation where massive amounts of personal data get shared unwittingly with a third-party (aside from the Chinese government, of course 😉).
No Built-in Reposting
A key design difference between Wechat and Facebook is that on Wechat you can’t easily repost content from other users. This limits how quickly content can spread throughout the system. Facebook is designed to allow engaging content to spread as quickly and widely as possible to drive engagement, and thus, ad revenue for Facebook. Tencent, on the other hand, is much more scared of punishment by the government than they are of maximizing engagement, and the UI choices reflect this.
A Simpler Experience
The overall result of these differences is a much simpler experience that focuses on sharing your personal life with close friends and family and nothing more. You can like and comment, and view your friends posts in chronological order, and that’s it. Wechat’s social media feed is definitely more boring than Facebook - just lots of photos of friends’ daily lives usually, no exciting political content (unless the gov wants it shared). Censorship is also pervasive, of course - if you post something political or that will get readers fired up it will be removed typically within minutes. Regardless, social media in Wechat is not vulnerable to the manipulation and misinformation that is commonplace on Facebook. There are far fewer ads to buy and target, and there’s no easy way to rapidly spread viral misinformation.
Are there any lessons for the west in how social media works in China? At the very least, it shows that it’s possible to have massive social networks that are not purely ad-driven. It shows as well that it’s possible to have a simple social media feed that’s focused on sharing your life with your close friends - what Facebook was originally - rather than driving engagement and time-in-app at all costs. It shows as well that it’s possible to have a social network that is less vulnerable to mass disinformation and viral content by making different UI choices. I don’t think Wechat moments is a perfect model to replicate - the extreme censorship comes to mind as a big negative - but I think it’s still a good case-study to take lessons and inspiration from to improve social media in the west.