Article by Tim King
I can remember clearly the first time I heard about WeChat. It was seven years ago; I was in a café with a colleague of mine, who was marveling over a new app on her phone. “It’s called Weixin, you have to try it,” she said. “You can send voice messages.” After doing my normal sarcastic things, like pointing out that voicemail has been a thing for decades and that talking to a person on your phone is normally covered by dialing a number and speaking to someone directly, she shrugged and kept playing. It was another nearly two years later that I got my first smartphone and fell into the trap. By that point it had been given an English name (WeChat) and its presence and importance in Chinese society had begun to grow exponentially. No longer just a messenger app, you can settle debts, pay bills, make voice and video calls, order taxis and so much more that I can’t possibly list all its features. But you probably already knew about that stuff. And those things are not what we’re going to be talking about today.
Even if you don’t spend as much time on WeChat as I do (it’s work-related, I swear), you’re probably spending a good chunk of time on it anyway. And like any social media platform that becomes mass culture, WeChat’s huge user base has lead to its myriad features, but it has also given rise to specific behavioral patterns that are maybe less than great. There are a lot of things people do on the platform that probably bother you but, in my opinion, some transgressions are clearly worse than others.
If we consider gluttony’s common definition as “the overconsumption of anything to the point of waste,” there are few words better to describe some people’s relationship with WeChat. As of 2017, more than 50% of users were spending more than two hours actively using the app every day. Keeping in mind its incredible utility in our lives, and adding up all that idle time throughout the day in buses and taxis and waiting in line for things, two hours doesn’t sound so ridiculous. Things only get gluttonous for that 35% of users who are using WeChat more than four hours daily. When we start getting into Lord of the Rings Extended Cut running times, that means you’re consuming so much WeChat that it’s interfering with other parts of our lives—work, sleep and, more than likely, the time we’re supposed to be spending with people who are right in front of us.
But we wouldn’t have so much sucking us into WeChat were it not for the prideful among us. The vainglorious users of WeChat keep our Memories tab flush with photos of their every waking moment. Just woke up? Selfie. Had jianbing for breakfast again? Picture of the jianbing with a bite taken out of it and the sidewalk in the background. Went to Park Qin for beer pong with your friends for the thousandth time? Group selfie with the full results of that night’s tournament. If the posts aren’t going out in real-time, then you can bet your ass that you’re getting a nine-picture omnibus of all the nothing that happened in that person’s day by evening. Hashtag blessed. And god forbid you’re not keeping up on all the posts, or you’ll have to come up with an answer to the lamest question ever conceived in the history of questions: “Did you not see my WeChat Moments?”
On the other hand, when given the choice between a prideful WeChatter and a wrathful WeChatter, I would probably take the former any day of the week. The patterns are similar—heavy use of the public sharing features, misguided sense that people are following their account like they’re Kanye West—but instead of sharing how every moment of every day is wonderful and magical, those committing the sin of wrath take everything that annoys them during the day and, using the classic literary form of the unfocused tirade, spin it into “proof” that Chinese society is on the brink of collapse. Yeah, it sucks that the mirror got broken on your moped, and no one is arguing that—do you really need to act like hit-and-runs don’t exist back in your home country?
While WeChat is intended as a platform for to communicate with people and know them better, I don’t think Tencent intended that to mean “knowing” them in the biblical sense. For whom does a person take a “sexy” selfie? Really consider that for a moment. When a man is about to share that shirtless post-gym selfie on his Moments, does he think “Karen didn’t like me before but this is sure to get her all hot and bothered”? I submit that he does not—if it was about or for a specific person, then that would be a sext, a private action which, while potentially gross, kind of is what it is. When a person posts sexy photos on Moments, they’re just kind of chumming the waters. In a way, that’s much grosser.
But maybe the problem isn’t that WeChat enables the narcissist in all of us, it’s that WeChat enables the voyeur in all of us. It’s a problem inherent with pretty much all social media—not only are we trying to keep up with the Joneses, we’re seeing inside their lives in ways we never dreamed possible. However, because the Joneses get to curate what we see of them, we only see the good stuff: the vacations, the fancy dinners and so on. The jealousy starts turning us greener than the Incredible Hulk. And then it happens—we hit the “Like” button, but driven mad by envy it’s no longer a Like, it’s a Hate; a cute, heart-shaped kiss of death as the plot to Single White Female them thickens.
With WeChat, convenience is king. By now most features have been simplified down to no more than a couple taps, but its big feature from the get-go was being able to share voice notes like you would a text message. That’s all well and good. Sometimes we’re in a tight spot and need to reply quickly, so just blurting out a couple of words is what needs to happen. Or, other times, maybe we just need the personal touch of hearing someone’s voice. Sure, okay. But then there’s the friend on our list who refuses to use anything except the voice feature to communicate. Then we’re subject to walls of voice messages—eight messages, each 40 seconds or longer, that need to be heard at least three times because it’s filled with ums and ahs and redundancies because “it cut me off.” Protip: if WeChat is telling you to stop talking, then you should definitely shut up. And don’t get me started on people who voice message in large group chats. So all 70 of us have to stop what we’re doing to listen to your stupid voice? I would say it were arrogant if it weren’t just so damn lazy.
Speaking of group chat etiquette, how much fun is the “Red Envelope” feature on WeChat? It’s a nice, quick way to lend a friend some cash in a pinch or send someone a culturally appropriate greeting around the holidays. Even more fun is when someone puts one out for the whole group to try; sure, the amounts are generally only jiao and fen, but it’s kind of like the lottery! Less fun is when lurkers come out of the woodwork to snake the contents of these envelopes for themselves (or, just as likely, someone who hasn’t been paying attention sees it and taps it out of reflex before the recipient can). Sure, you could victim blame the envelope-fillers, saying stuff like “if they didn’t want that to happen they wouldn’t post it in public,” but why is that more damnable than being a pathetic digital thief?
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease and a sinner as well, so who is he to cast judgment? He can be reached at