SAN FRANCISCO — As Mark Zuckerberg beginsshifting Facebook to private messaging and awayfrom public sharing and open conversations, thevision he has sketched out for the future of socialnetworking already exists — just not in the UnitedStates.
Instead, it is a reality in China through a messagingapp called WeChat.
Developed by the Chinese internet giant Tencent in 2011, WeChat lets people message eachother via one-on-one texts, audio or video calls. Users can also form groups of as many as 500 people on WeChat to discuss and debate the issues of the day.
While Facebook users constantly see ads in their News Feeds, WeChat users only see one ortwo ads a day in their Moment feeds. That’s because WeChat isn’t dependent on advertisingfor making money. It has a mobile payments system that has been widely adopted in China, which allows people to shop, play games, pay utility bills and order meal deliveries all fromwithin the app. WeChat gets a commission from many of these services.
“WeChat has shown definitively that private messaging, especially the small groups, is thefuture,” said Jeffrey Towson, a professor of investment at Peking University. “It is the uberutility of business and life. It has shown the path.”
What is happening in China offers clues to not only how Facebook may carry out its shift, buthow the internet more broadly might change. Many of Silicon Valley’s tech giants aredependent today on online advertising to make enough money to keep growing and innovatingon new services. Some call online ads the lifeblood of the internet.
But WeChat, which has 1.1 billion monthly active users, shows that other models — particularlythose based on payments and commerce — can support massive digital businesses. That hasimplications for Google, Twitter and many others, as well as Facebook.
WeChat, of course, has its own flaws. The messaging app is heavily censored because ofrequirements by the Chinese government.
Facebook and Tencent did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Zuckerberg didn’t elaborate much this week on how the change toward private messagingwould affect Facebook’s business, which relies on people publicly sharing posts to be able toserve them targeted advertisements. In a blog post, he said Facebook would build more waysfor people to interact on top of messaging, “including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of privateservices.”
Yet it’s unclear whether Mr. Zuckerberg can pull all those features off with Facebook. OnWeChat, those services are underpinned by its mobile payments system, WeChat Pay. Becausepayments is already tied into the messaging service, people can easily order meal deliveries, book hotels, hail ride-sharing cars and pay their bills. WeChat Pay itself has 900 million monthlyactive users.
People also use WeChat Pay to transfer money and to buy personal finance products. Morethan 100 million customers have purchased WeChat’s personal finance products, whichmanaged over 500 billion yuan, or $74 billion, by the end of last September, Tencent has said. Its users can buy everything from bonds and insurance to money market funds through theapp.
Facebook lacks such a payments system. So to be more like WeChat, the Silicon Valleycompany could have to acquire banking and payment licenses in many countries. One signthat Facebook has been thinking about payments is its work on a new crypto coin that is meantto let people send money to contacts on their messaging systems.
To make Facebook a private messaging product, Mr. Zuckerberg may have a lot else to learnfrom Allen Zhang, the creator of WeChat. Mr. Zhang is famous for his perfectionist pursuit ofa well-designed service.
“He is renowned in China’s tech scene as an artist and philosopher, as well as for his fiercemission against anything that degrades user experience,” Connie Chan, an investor at theventure capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, recently wrote of Mr. Zhang.
“他在中国科技界的出名是作为一个艺术家和哲学家，还有他以抵制一切降低用户体验的东西为己任，”风险投资公司安德森·霍洛维茨(Andreessen Horowitz)的投资人陈梅陵(Connie Chan)近期在关于张小龙的文章中写道。
Mr. Zhang fought many internal battles when Tencent’s revenue department pushed to putmore ads on WeChat. In a four-hour speech earlier this year, he pondered the question of whythere were not more ads on the messaging service, especially the opening-page ads that arethe norm in many other Chinese mobile apps.
Mr. Zhang’s answer: Many Chinese spent a lot of time — about one third of their online time — on WeChat, he said. “If WeChat were a person, it would have to be your best friend so that youwould be willing to spend so much time with it,” he said. “How could I post an ad on the faceof your best friend? Every time you see it, you’ll have to watch an ad before you can talk to it.”
Mr. Zhang, who has made restraint his product philosophy, has been lucky because Tencentmakes most of its money from online games so that it does not need to sell ads for revenue.
Tencent doesn’t break out its revenues from WeChat, but its financial report for the thirdquarter of 2018 said that social advertising revenue, which includes WeChat, grew 61 percentfrom a year earlier, while the category called “other businesses,” which includes paymentservices, rose by 69 percent.
Mr. Zuckerberg does not have that luxury, given that he is trying to switch from an ad-basedbusiness into a different model. It will be far from an easy task to pull off.
“Zuck is clearly trying to address Facebook’s problems of privacy and fake news, but it willgreatly affect its monetization capability,” said Ivy Li, a venture capitalist at Seven SeasPartners in Menlo Park, Calif. “How comprehensive the surgery is going to be and whetherthe implementation will be twisted by all kinds of compromises is a big question.”
“扎克伯格显然在努力应对Facebook的隐私和假消息问题，但这将严重影响其盈利能力，”加州门洛帕克的七海资本(Seven Seas Partners)的风险投资人艾薇·李(Ivy Li)说。“这场变革会有多全面，执行上是否会因各种妥协而扭曲是个大问题。”
She added: “Facebook is trying to seek a balance between a public square and a private spacein an increasingly polarizing society. The final result could be it will be abandoned by both.”
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