Over the past few days, my WeChat has been inundated with people reminiscing about the first message they ever posted to the app’s News Feed, which marked its 10th anniversary this week.
The newsfeed feature, called Moments, is like a social network that lives inside the WeChat super app. Unlike many other social networks, which died out over time or fell out of favor among their original users like Facebook, Moments managed to stay relevant.
Indeed, 780 million users were on Moments every day, of which 120 million were actively posting content, according to a annual speech delivered by Allen Zhang, the creator of WeChat, in January 2021. On its scale, Moments is one of the largest social networks in China although it is not an independent application. People use it to record daily thoughts, promote business, find out what their former colleagues are up to, watch a live concert (from Westlife!), share news and, in times of emergency, provide useful information to those in need.
It’s hard to overstate the role this seemingly simple feature plays in WeChat’s success, not to mention the product philosophy and business logic behind WeChat that it encapsulates.
WeChat is rightly called a “super app” because each of its main features works like a full app, but with simplified functions: WeChat Pay (PayPal), short videos (TikTok), messaging (WhatsApp), official accounts (Medium and Facebook Page) and Moments (Facebook News Feed).
A year after its messenger went live in 2011, WeChat introduced Moments. Like Facebook’s News Feed – arguably its closest Western equivalent – it features a scrolling chain of texts, photos, articles and videos shared by a user’s contacts.
Moments’ longevity stems in part from being featured prominently on an almost ubiquitous app in a country of 1.4 billion people. Last September, WeChat had over 1.2 billion monthly users who used it to chat, read news, watch funny videos, order food, book hospital visits, pay utility bills public, etc.
WeChat has also built in recent years a thriving ecosystem of third-party lightweight apps it’s akin to an operating system that runs within the app, potentially challenging mobile app stores and fostering a walled garden. But the garden is under increasing pressure to crack as China targets monopolies in the tech industry.
The other critical factor, some say, is that Moments remained largely in its pristine form. Allen Zhang is often applauded for keeping Moments posts in chronological order, safe from the disruption of algorithms that try to predict which friend update a user wants to see.
Moments is also relatively ad-free – scroll through 10 posts and a user can find non-intrusive advertising. This is partly thanks to other lucrative businesses within WeChat, such as its mobile payment solution, relieving the networking function to monetize people’s attention.
Moments is not without its challenges. Ubiquity is also its curse. Many users now have thousands of contacts on WeChat as the app is widely used for working in addition to social needs. Many users may not want to share their decade of stories with a stranger they just politely added at a networking event.
Seeing the demand for more privacy, in 2017 WeChat started allowing users to hide their Moments streams or make them visible for a certain period only. The move was a success. In a speech in early 2021, Zhang mentioned an estimated 200 million users made their Moments streams viewable for just three days.
As long as WeChat continues to invent and listen to users, Moments will continue to attract loyal subscribers.