During an interview in May with the Tesla Owners of Silicon Valley, Elon Musk lamented the lack of an ‘everything app’ outside China. “My idea would be like, how about we just copy WeChat?” he suggested.
“WeChat is kickass,” added Musk.
Since those offhand comments, the billionaire entrepreneur has become CEO of Twitter, a controversial takeover that has shrouded the future of the platform in doubt. For now, Musk’s plate is full as he deals with fraught issues involving top-level US politics, Kanye West, fallout from mass layoffs, and the legions of bots that continue to plague Twitter.
But in the long run, Musk appears intent on transforming the platform into something much bigger than just a microblogging site.
The term “super-app” generally refers to any digital application that allows for communication and financial transactions between users, serving as a ubiquitous and indispensable tool in a particular market.
Launched by Shenzhen-based Tencent in 2011, WeChat is considered to be one of the world’s few true super-apps, serving practically all Chinese adults on a daily basis. With messaging at the core, the app also allows its users to conduct payments, post and browse social media content, ride public transportation, play games, search for information, place deliveries, and much more.
Global tech giants have long sought to replicate Tencent‘s success – reports last week that Microsoft is developing a super-app represent just the latest example. Whether or not Twitter under Musk, or major firms such as Microsoft and Google, can actually bring about a super-app in the West, they will need to grapple with US market conditions that are very unlike those that enabled WeChat to thrive in China.
“Super-apps are best when built on top of an app that is a daily necessity,” Rui Ma, China tech analyst and creator of Tech Buzz China, told Pandaily in written comments. “WeChat provided a core service that everyone needed many times a day, which is messaging. And because China didn’t really have an email culture and had very weak social networking products, it isn’t just messaging in the sense of how Americans would think about it, but persistent, real-identity, person-to-person, two-way communications in general, fulfilling the roles of messaging, email, and real-name social networking.”
Current habits in the West contrast significantly, with most people still relying on email in the workplace and generally opting for different channels entirely for professional and private functions.
“I would say that for a true WeChat clone to emerge in the US, email has to die,” wrote Rui Ma.
Twitter of today is far from a daily necessity. Only about 23% of Americans say that they use the platform, and a Pew Research Center study found that “the top 25% of users by tweet volume produced 97% of all tweets.” So although Twitter undoubtedly occupies a central position in public dialogue, it faces an uphill battle to achieve the vitality of a bona fide super-app.
Meanwhile, WeChat reportedly had 1.26 billion active users in Q1 2022, almost all based in China. Tencent achieved $17.4 billion in revenue from WeChat last year, compared to just $5.08 billion for Twitter in the same year.
Elon Musk exhibited an early interest in WeChat, remarking (article in Chinese) during a 2014 visit to China that “it looks like a very good application.”
At that time, WeChat had already won the bid to serve as China’s top messaging app, a dominance that soon spilled into other areas as third-party developers got to work adding all types of functions imaginable to the platform. Empowered by the introduction of payment services in 2013 – just over two years after WeChat’s launch – mini programs have since abounded, offering users a wide range of services all within the one app.
“Mini programs, unlike apps, can be easily shared and opened without a download process and typically with one-click registration,” Rui Ma told Pandaily. “That’s a big difference with the app store and a lot less friction.”
Since taking over, Musk’s changes to Twitter itself have been relatively minor. The introduction of Twitter Blue is due to take place this week, allowing users to pay a monthly fee of $8 ($11 for those with Apple devices) to verify their account. Musk says that this is intended to raise costs for bots, the fake accounts promulgated to create clickbait, or for more malicious purposes such as spreading disinformation.
The real-name foundation of WeChat, whereby users must link their account with their legal name and phone number, makes it much more difficult for bots to thrive. In the coming months, Musk has hinted that Twitter will be shoring up its identity confirmation protocols.
So far, Musk’s tumultuous tenure at Twitter hasn’t produced clear signs of a dramatic transformation into a WeChat-like super-app. However, despite a giddy panic over the so-called death of Twitter, the platform and its users have stuck around so far, with user activity reportedly growing since the takeover. If Musk can steady the ship in the short term, he just might win his long-awaited chance to broaden Twitter’s horizons.