Ever since I’ve been living in China I have been completely dependent on my BlackBerry smartphone and I have used various other BlackBerry phones over many years. But I just recently discovered, that my current BlackBerry phone is not as smart as I once thought. As a matter of fact BlackBerry’s are a tad bit slow compared to the Samsung Galaxy phones that now dominate the Chinese market.
A few months ago my phone reached its last text message and began to showily teeter out on me due too old age. Out of desperation, I sought a younger and smarter model but to my utter dismay I learned that you can no longer buy BlackBerry phones in China.
I reluctantly went to a local Samsung store and bought a Galaxy S6 Edge plus phone. I was absolutely awestruck by my new phones features, especially, by the sheer number of apps that come with the phone, a huge selling point.
It wasn’t until later that I discovered that the Google services applications on my new device are blocked by a computer chip that was installed in the phone. The Chinese government to my frustration has ordered those computer chips to be embedded in all Smartphones and Computers being sold in China. The Chinese government, through this embedded chip, has the capability to control what computer applications can and cannot be used in mainland China. I became pretty angry when learning about this and about why I could not use the Google services features.
That being said, there is still a Chinese feature on the phone that has opened up a whole new world for me – WeChat. This smartphone application has dominated the social media scene here in China.
The country of China is now home to the world’s largest smartphone market and the WeChat app is built in to all the smart phones being sold in China. The app incorporates some features of most western social networks, but it started out as a messaging app, and messaging is still at its heart. I was also awestruck by the amount of users there are in China and not to mention that all the teachers at my School are now using the app.
The thing I love the most about WeChat is it has a built in translator that can be used for any language. The app can instantly translate any language to whatever language you want it translated too. In January, I started using the app to communicate with my cousin in Italy via the internet and with my fellow teachers. Now instead of getting text messages I get WeChats. The app can be used over any cellular or WiFi connection.
People can send me photos, voice notes, file transfers, live video streams or short animations instantly for work or play with WeChat.
People can also use the app to pay their utility bills, buy items in stores, order a taxi, and pay bills in restaurants and Bars. They can even use it to purchase tickets for movies and plays. I like using it to purchase additional data for my phone and additional data for my other smart technology devices.
According to the latest data released by WeChat, in September, 2015 about 570 million users logged into the app - every day. In addition to personal accounts, individuals and companies can register for public accounts. They work a little bit like blogs which live in the app and are embedded in the messaging experience.
Updates from friends and associates appear in the app and from public accounts you subscribe too.
Messages, videos, documents, and voice notes sent to me via the app can appear right below a message from my wife and daughter or above a group chat of fellow teachers. I have found the WeChat experience to be much more intimate than the comment section of a website or a blog. The app has become more than just simply sending out a text messages to colleagues. It’s more like having a private messaging thread with someone close by and personal.
Some WeChat users have gotten huge followings in relatively short periods of time. One good example is a WeChat account called “Serious Gossip.” The creator, Zhang Ziyan, was an entertainment reporter at VISTA magazine, one of the largest news and lifestyle magazines in China.
She started writing about celebrities and movies on the app with a very distinct voice, pointing out sexism and corruption. The account gained about 200,000 followers within one year. Another example is “Miss_shopping_li”, a lifestyle and fashion account started by Fang Yimin, a veteran reporter at a metro paper. Her side project became so successful that she decided to quit her job and hire assistants to develop it full-time.
Many successful WeChat users tend to focus on the lifestyles of celebrities rather than corruption in government. Tech news has been gaining an ever growing following among the app users as well. Not too many people are writing about politics on WeChat because it’s still the business of the state-run media to disseminate state run propaganda in China.
But a deeper point is that former reporters and editors at traditional news organizations have successfully - on WeChat - shown their former employers an important lesson about engagement and brand development.
Today’s youth are more interested in interacting with the news providers on social media than simply turning on a radio or a TV.
Today's millennials, especially, here in China are not just turning to social media to be informed. They are seeking also the experience of being the informer and expressing themselves to a wider circle of people.
Now getting back to my new phone, when I purchased it, I was a bit frustrated and disappointed by the sheer number of apps that the Chinese government has blocked from being used on the phone. I am unable to use the apps in China and due to the embedded chip - anywhere else for that matter.
The only way to get around China’s extreme censorship is to purchase your smart technology outside of mainland China. Looking back in hindsight - buying the phone outside of China is something I should have done. But as for the WeChat app on the phone it has certainly opened a whole new world for me. That is definitely a good thing for new social media folks - like me.
- Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill
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