“What’s your WeChat ID?”
This, followed by someone whipping out their phone and revealing a QR code shaped like a smiling toast, has replaced the “add me on Facebook” ritual in America. Although Facebook can tout a global audience, China’s strict web censorship makes accessing Facebook “difficult” (you have to establish a VPN) and is therefore not the best way to reach someone. It’s been just over a month since I arrived in China and I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve added on Facebook.
My WeChat friend list, however, has expanded quite rapidly within the past four weeks. I’ve also started to encourage several friends from the U.S. to add WeChat. (Add me! My username is asullivan1)
WeChat is part texting platform and part Facebook but is primarily used on your phone*. You can add WeChat users and have private texting conversations, complete with a stellar variety of emojis*, amongst people and a group of people. I, personally, love the emoji selection on WeChat and quickly grew accustom to using emojis to convey my thoughts. (They’re far superior than the ones you can use with iPhone texting).
(* Posts on emojis and buying phone plans in China to be forthcoming)
In addition to texting, users can also use a walkie talkie app, video call and voice message back and forth that’s very, very popular among Chinese users. WeChat also has a profile with photos and a wall where users can upload photos, post links and their thoughts. People can ‘like’ and comment on the posts their friends upload.
WeChat had over 396 million users in February 2014, according to Danwei, a Chinese media analyst company.
WeChat is by far an integral part of my daily life in China. I quickly developed contacts through WeChat and of my contacts, I only have phone numbers for a few of them. When I email a source for a story, they promptly respond with their phone number and their WeChat id and we continue communicating through WeChat. Texting someone on WeChat is a first response and texting is only done if they have problems accessing wifi. Calling is definitely not a primary way of communication.
WeChat is only slightly like Facebook but is much more internal. On Facebook, if I like Friend A’s photo, A’s friends (non-mutual included) can see that I liked that photo. Not true for WeChat, where I can only see the comments and ‘likes’ made by our mutual friends.
Tip for future China travelers: If you’re staying here for more than two days and will be socializing with people — add WeChat. It’s the one thing everyone has and the first way people choose to communicate with each other. Plus it’s an easy way to continue to communicate after you’ve moved on to other countries or returned home.
Europe has a similar app, WhatsApp, and although this version has caught on more in the US than WeChat, it’s interesting to see that there isn’t an equivalent in the U.S. For me, texting and email has remained the two ways I communicate with people back in the states.
Apart from WeChat, I also use QQ, basically an instant messenger (like yahoo, AOL, or MSN) to connect with friends and co-workers. Users can send files over QQ, which I use at work for editing articles.