WeChat’s Hubris Could Open the Door to Needed Competition

Bottom line: WeChat’s growing hubris, reflected by increasingly aggressive content filtering, could open the door to a more user-friendly competitor.

WeChat gets overly agressive with word filtering

These days the following exchange seems to happen with growing frequency at companies around China.

Person 1, yelling across the office: “Did anyone see my message about [insert name of any random subject]?”

Colleague, yelling back: “Uh, don’t think we saw that one. Maybe it was blocked.”

Many in China will probably recognize what I’m talking about, but for those outside perhaps a bit more explanation is needed. The above dialogues are all talking about messages being blocked on the hugely popular WeChat instant messaging platform, which has become an integral part of most people’s social and work lives in China these last five or six years.

As readers can probably guess from the above dialogue, WeChat has become more aggressive over the past year in filtering its content for sensitive words. The service is hardly alone in such practice, since China’s cyber security law says all website and app operators must police themselves for and remove such content.

But when you talk about this kind of self-policing, it’s really up to the individual websites and apps to decide what to look for and remove. In WeChat’s case, it seems like the company has gotten lazy lately and begun filtering a growing number of keywords and topics, often without any obvious sensitive content. The result is that you often send a message or file and wait patiently for a response, only to later learn the post was never received by the intended recipients.

Rather than delve into the politics of what’s happening at WeChat, which declined to comment on its filtering policies, I want to focus the rest of this column on a more business-related topic that could have huge implications for WeChat and its parent, Tencent (HKEx: 700). The topic revolves around a basic question: Could WeChat’s recent policies turn off large numbers of its more than 1 billion users, and open the door for another more user-friendly rival?

To answer that question, I did one of my unscientific polls, putting a set of questions to my 2,000-plus friends and contacts on the very WeChat service that’s the subject of this column. The results were quite revealing, and seem to indicate that people aren’t quite ready to abandon WeChat just yet. But it could just be a matter of time if things keep up at their current pace.

More on that soon. But first I’ll quickly summarize WeChat’s current status to give people outside China a sense of how ubiquitous it has become in many people’s daily lives, mine included. I previously wrote about how entrenched WeChat has become as a work tool for many, providing convenient and cheap ways to hold all kinds of group and individual chats and calls over a wide range of distances.

Many people also use the platform these days for a big chunk of their online social interaction, including written and voice communications and group sharing through its Moments function that is similar to Facebook’s newsfeed.

And the survey says …

With all that background in mind, we’ll spend the second half of this column looking at my survey results and what they might say about whether WeChat’s filtering ways could provide a business opportunity for a smart rival app operator. My polling query returned 13 meaningful results, covering a wide range of industries that seemed somewhat representative.

Of the 13, seven said they had noticed the increased filtering and were frustrated by it. Three of those were from the media due to my own leanings, with others coming from such industries as education, international trade and other services. That does seem relatively significant, since it shows there’s a bit of discontent out there that a savvy alternate service provider could feed upon.

Most people who noticed the increased filtering said they were seeing it mainly in group chats, though one or two said they were seeing it in one-on-one messages as well. That said, no respondents said they were considering switching to other platforms as a result of their frustration. I would agree that at this point WeChat is so entrenched in my daily work and social routines that things would either have to get even worse, or an obviously better alternative would have to spring up for me to consider switching.

I particularly liked one response from a former student. She noted the change has been happening gradually over the last year and a half, and likened it to “using warm water to boil a frog” — in other words, a form of torture that’s so slow you may not even notice until it’s too late.

WeChat has certainly faced its challengers over the years, though in each case it fended off the competition with relative ease. One of the earliest assaults came from mobile giant China Mobile (HKEx: 941; NYSE: CHL), which accused WeChat of effectively being a rival network operator. E-commerce giant Alibaba (NYSE: BABA) would later try to mount a challenge with its Laiwang service, which ended in failure.

Last year a service called Bullet Messenger briefly surged into headlines as its downloads soared, though that also seems to have disappeared. And most recently, TikTok owner ByteDance in May launched a new challenger app called Flipchat.

So far I haven’t downloaded any of these apps, mostly because WeChat was providing me with perfectly good service at the time. But this latest behavior by WeChat is showing just how companies can abuse their position when they become near monopolies. Accordingly, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a new rival emerge in the next year — possibly quite suddenly — if WeChat continues in its current ways.

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