Why there’s an independent messenger app in the US, but not China?

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I’m always curious why in China, WeChat seems to play the role of both Facebook and messenger, but in the US people use separate apps for reading friends updates and instant messaging. What’s the rationale behind this difference?

Facebook

First, let’s look at the messenger + Facebook combination. Mark Zuckerberg stated in an interview that the Facebook App is primarily about news feed. It’s a place for people to read news and updates about their friends. Facebook used to have a built-in messaging function inside the app. But due to the rapidly increasing usage of the chat function, Facebook decided to build a standalone messaging app to improve users’ efficiency on replying to messages.

Let’s compare these two scenarios. With a built-in messaging function inside Facebook, it takes two clicks to reach the chat page: (1) open the Facebook app (2) click the chat button. With a standalone messenger app, only one click is needed. You may think that it’s not a big deal to just make one more click. But considering the high usage frequency of messaging app, the click would add up and become a non-negligible burden for users. Especially since users can use alternatives such as Whatsapp with chat as its front page, the subtle inconvenience of using Facebook can be more salient.

In another scenario, Facebook may consider moving the chat function into its front page and put news feed as a sub-tab. But this will have severe negative impact on the usage of news feed. This is not acceptable for the company since news feed is where all the revenue comes from.

To conclude, Facebook created a separate messenger app since it improved user experience considerably while minimizing the harm on core news feed function of Facebook app.

WeChat

Now it’s time to look at WeChat. At day 1, WeChat was built for messaging. The founder of WeChat Allen Zhang said that WeChat was built as the “mobile app version” of SMS. Thus, the app needs to ensure that users have a good experience in sending messages. It put chat function at the front page where users can access the function instantly. The WeChat equivalence of news feed, called “moments”, instead becomes a sub-tab which needs three clicks to reach the page. This is not practical for Facebook due to its reliance on news feed ads revenue. But for WeChat, the revenue source is much more diversified in mobile payment, online gaming etc. WeChat “moments” thus became an almost ad-free social feed.

It seems that the strategic focus of the product in early days (Facebook on newsfeed, WeChat on instant messaging) leads to the current differentiation where an independent messenger is needed for Facebook, but not for WeChat. But what led to this difference in strategic focus?

Why are there different strategic focus?

In short, the key reason is that Facebook was born in the time of PC while WeChat was born in the time of smart phone. In the PC era near 2000, people messaged each other using SMS service. Messaging on PC was not that a big deal since people can only sit in front of their computers for a short while every day. On contrary, the social news feed function that allows people to connect with each other and see what their friends are doing was a new and exciting experience for internet users at that time. Thus, it’s reasonable that Facebook’s news feed function became its core components, but not instant messaging.

During the transition time from PC to mobile, it’s true that Facebook may realize the importance of IM and shift the focus of their mobile app. But the company’s heavy economic reliance on news feed made it hard for the transition. News feed continues to be the focus of Facebook app.

In comparison, WeChat was launched in 2011 where iPhone has already become a hit. Before smartphone, SMS was a huge market in China dominated by telecommunication companies. There was a clear window of opportunity for a mobile app version of SMS. New companies may leverage this platform to break the monopoly of telecom companies in SMS services. This explains why WeChat focused on instant messaging since its initial launch.

Final Thoughts

The difference of the two of the world largest social apps today can be traced back to the time when they were launched. This creates a sense of destiny where all the phenomena happen today could be path-dependent to what happened in the past.

It reminds me of the book “Guns, Germs and Steel” where the author attributes the sociological and economic differences of countries today to their geographic differences thousand years ago. This chain of logic is hard to discover since there are so many factors along the history. This article as well by no means draws a definite conclusion to our initial question. But it’s helpful to delineate at least some hypotheses.

© Zhiwei (Berry) Wang.RSS