Chinese smartphone application WeChat has been tremendous successful in its country of origin. Now, having also conquered large parts of Southeast Asia, could the app soon become the new Facebook for smartphones in Cambodia? Julius Thiemann reports.
Maly, 36, enters the coffee shop and looks around hesitantly, followed by her work colleague Pich, 26. Both women wear business skirts and silk blouses this morning as if to say: “This blind date is professional only and we have no amorous intentions whatsoever.”
Maly and I first met online through the Chinese-made smartphone application WeChat. The app’s main function is to ‘look around’ and spot other users, showing how far away they are, accurate to 100 metres. You click on them, send a message and voila, instant message friends. After two weeks, I’m addicted.
Maly says that she has been using WeChat for two months now and since then spends much more time with the mobile app than on Facebook. It doesn’t surprise me. I ‘look around’ around three times an hour, and constantly keep my fingers on the buttons to see if someone has texted, sent me a picture, or commented on my profile.
We’re not alone. It’s a formula that has taken China, and the rest of Southeast Asia by storm – experts predict it’ll be bigger than Facebook in the mobile messaging segment. Next stop, Cambodia?
At first WeChat seems like any other Internet based text and voice messaging services – albeit with video chat and a few “special emoticons” such as, mysteriously, crying bunnies.
But with a growth rate 20 times higher than that of Facebook in October 2012, stated by the Internet marketing blog value2020 in October 2012, the app seems to be a matchless phenomenon.
Since Chinese Internet Giant Tencent, who started in simple messaging services and online gaming in 1998, brought WeChat onto the market in 2011, the app has been a big success.
After little more than a year, the app has 300 million subscribers in China and 40 million outside, according to Tencent assistant manager Katie Lee.
Many of these 40 million users are in Southeast Asia. According to specialist blog TechinAsia, WeChat has topped the app store in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Though she didn’t know figures for Cambodia, Lee told 7 Days that the Kingdom‘s neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, have also quite successfully adapted WeChat – in around four months.
With 3.3 million 3G (mobile internet on smartphones) subscribers in the Kingdom according to Cambodian Investment Management, in a population of about 15 million, the Cambodian market is seen as ripe for social apps.
However, not everyone is so positive. Cambodia-based social media expert Anthony Galliano doubts WeChat will be successful here.
“WeChat’s success in China has been driven by the abandonment of traditional SMS in favor of more affordable and social alternatives, as the application diverts users from sending text messages and making voice call,” he said.
“Cambodians have been reluctant to graduate to other social media platforms beyond their comfort zone with Facebook.”
In other countries, the fast growth of the app came as a surprise.
“They [Asian mobile apps like WeChat] are growing phenomenally fast, no one expected this to happen,” Neha Dharia from research firm Ovum, told BBC News.
“You would expect these players to become strong in their own markets, but you don’t expect them to grow so fast globally.”
At a local level, at least one mobile phone seller says she is noticing a growing presence of the app in her market.
Siv Dalin, store manager of Seang Lin Phone Shop on Sihanouk Boulevard in Phnom Penh says every phone they sell has WeChat installed, along with other messaging devices.
“It is similar to Facebook messenger (the mobile Facebook messaging app) but better and people want it preinstalled.”
“I think it will be a success in Cambodia,” she said.
Next to other messaging apps like Badoo, Viber, and WhatsApp, Dalin says Cambodians currently use almost all the messaging apps available and don’t seem to be loyal to one device – yet, she says.
“I use Viber, Tango, and WhatsApp but I tell my friends to go to WeChat because it is easier to use and better.” Maly says.
But how is it possible to handle so many messenger apps at once? Imagine dealing with five Facebooks: there would be no time to chat, let alone hold down a job.
There are big differences between the use of social services on smartphones and social networks on the internet, according to one prominent sociology expert.
Sam Han, author of Web 2.0 and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), in Singapore told BBC News: “Chat apps are rooted in a logic of constant contact, facilitating social interactions no longer centered on “depth”, but rather “frequency”.
It’s an experience I found. In the last two weeks since I discovered WeChat, I installed the Chinese flirt application Momo, the American flirt app Tagged and the Chinese messenger Badoo.
It only takes a few seconds to keep “relationships” alive and most of all constantly get in touch with new strangers. A few words, an emoticon as a comment to a picture, a shared and uncommented photo in the status line, a friend request to a stranger – without the use of many words you can stay an active member in different communities of millions of strangers.
Needless to say, an app that connects nearby strangers with the potential for real-world contact doesn’t come without a more licentious side.
Dari*, 26 started using the app four months ago to meet men and it has since become a constant.
Every other second her Samsung phone whistles with a notification that an interested party has messaged her or commented on her revealing pictures.
“At the moment I am texting with about 200 men. Many of them are Chinese because they don’t mind that I am a lady boy. They don’t know what it is.” Dari says.
She meets up with about two per cent of the men she texts with, she says, sometimes telling them she is a lady boy, sometimes not.
Whether WeChat’s dating, “shaking”, and “looking around” will become the ‘like’ and ‘friending’ of the near future, remains to be seen.
Or will the excitement of looking at countless picture galleries of people from your neighbourhood and the rest of the globe wear off, as the six million US Facebook users who left in February found? You can only try it to find out.