WeChat: It’s more than just a good way to have rambling text exchanges for free. It’s a place to be you, to feel important, to –please, shoot me in the face – build your brand. It’s not like real life, where no one cares what you’ve eaten and loved ones ask how you are without ever expecting an actual update. WeChat wants you – within specific apolitical limits – to express yourself. Be yourself. Spread the word. Talk about this (but maybe not that).
WeChat’s Moments feature doesn’t ask a specific question or even try to invite anybody to post anything particularly exciting, but, still, people just about resist going down the “Not much going on” or “Same old” route in their updates, well, some people anyway. But none of this makes Moments a remotely compelling feature of WeChat. Moments are something you tend to look at because the alternative is less exciting than cutting your toenails – you’re in an elevator stopping at every floor, you’re in an off-brand coffee house trying to avoid eye contact with everyone except the barista, you’re teaching English.
Moments are where you discover some distant acquaintance’s fascinating urge to share what song played to their morning workout; follow the nascent start-up activities of a random bloke you met in a pub, whose name you can’t quite remember; or learn more about the quiet guy that left early without saying anything, but insisted on getting your contact (he has a family he enjoys photographing very much).
Moments are something you tend to look at because the alternative is less exciting than cutting your toenails – you’re in an elevator stopping at every floor, you’re in an off-brand coffee house trying to avoid eye contact with everyone except the barista, you’re teaching English.
Having a quick look at the contacts on a WeChat, and it’s a fair guess that the user has no idea who about 20-40 percent of them are. Who is the mysterious ‘Gerald’ who posts wistful photographs of himself alone, always alone, in fields and on moors and by lonely lakes with lonely captions (“Mongolia in February”)? We don’t know, we just added him on WeChat once, long ago. Who is ‘Lia’ who posts daily links concerning the activities of a perfume store on Taobao? Chat history does not relate. Who, one must gently ask, the fuck are all these people?
There are times, passingly rare times, when Moments is a force for good, perhaps letting you know about some interesting local event that might otherwise have slipped under the radar. At its best, Moments can even create a community, sort of, a fleeting forum in which to share news about a serious event – like that time I learned that a guy with a samurai sword was practicing on foreigners, five minutes from my apartment. That was a useful Moment (should I have ‘liked’ it, though?). And there was the Uniqlo sex tape/ guerrilla marketing stunt in summer, which everyone shared on Moments, if only to make an academic point about the collusion between capitalism, fashion and social media in the debasement of youth culture, perhaps a high point of the “WeChat effect” and possibly a defining communal moment for those leading lives of quiet masturbation.
On the whole, though, the news tends to have a distancing effect on WeChat. Partly, there’s a repetitious nature to the links being shared; outside of specific groups, people tend not to share interesting or complex articles of general interest, but rather local news bites and weird shit. When something big goes down, like a landslide or chemical explosion or another natural manmade disaster, people tend to insipid mass emoting (or e-moting, as the kids don’t call it), offering stuff like #PrayFor, alongside a row of not-even-real candles and solemn, clasped hands. This is well meaning, to be sure, and aptly demonstrates what a good-hearted human the poster is, but, really it’s the digital equivalent of shaking your head and saying, “Oh my God, that’s so sad,” while stopping to take a snap of a dying bum. Mind you, the most popular accounts in the whole country are People’s Daily, CCTV, traffic news and funny videos from Dongbei. You don’t come to WeChat for enlightenment or insight; you come for the funny northeastern people and their pratfalls, or to get gifs of people performing tricks with their dicks.
This is well meaning, to be sure, and aptly demonstrates what a good-hearted human the poster is, but, really it’s the digital equivalent of shaking your head and saying, “Oh my God, that’s so sad,” while stopping to take a snap of a dying bum.
Facebook, by comparison, seems as edgy as a wuxia blade. I stopped looking at Moments months ago, apart from the occasional grimacing scroll if waiting somewhere without a copy of China Daily to hand. Perhaps WeChat has now evolved to a dynamic forum of sparkling wit and taste, somewhere to recline with some popcorn and watch the big dogs bark. On the off chance that it’s still as blandly trend-obsessed and self-absorbed as its users, I approached some former life coaches, post-graduate relationship counselors and social media “mavens” for some China-quality lifestyle advice about what you should and shouldn’t do on WeChat. Their conclusions, summarized here (right), provide bold, box-fresh, blue-skythinking on matters that are typically ignored by the mainstream media:
Group chat etiquette: It’s hard to erase group chats once they start; right now, there are group chats from a year ago still technically open and live, knocking about cyberspace like awkward guests at a dinner party that nobody knows about. Try scrolling through months-old conversation to find a really dormant chat, then get the party started again by sharing something dramatic (“OMG, you heard about Kelly?”) or understated (“Just want to say goodbye, everyone”).
If you live somewhere near civilization, like Shanghai, you probably have dozens of stubs and half-assed chats about plans to go see Star Wars or attend aerobics or visit a dwarf bar. It’s trickier for those dwelling in less-traveled parts, such as Dongguan or northwest China, which instead have vibrant hobbyist groups peopled with expats desperate for human contact: the Wuhan Croquet Club, say, maybe the Dongguan Dungeons and Dragons Society or People Who Speak English in Golmud (three members, all eager to meet). Thus, the main concern about group chats is how to leave: quit the chat when the going’s good, announce your departure with a series of fond personal farewells or just say “Argh.”
Be Careful What you Share: The other thorny etiquette is what’s appropriate to share with a large group of friends, colleagues and strangers. Say your finger is hovering over that gif of three old men – does the trigger warning say ‘lemonparty’? One rule suggests that if you wouldn’t wear it on a pink T-shirt to a hot springs party, keep it to yourself. Others say anything’s fine, as long as it’s after 4pm on a Friday. You have been warned. anyone even cares.
People Nearby: The equivalent of walking into a half-full bar and shouting. “Hey, who wants to talk to me?” Dangerous, debilitating, disappointing. Don’t do it.
Brand Yourself: So important, this cannot be stressed enough. Your Moments are how you choose to share yourself with the world. Do you aspire to being that guy who posts multiples videos from a nightclub? Be that guy! By clicking on your individual clips, friends can be instantly transported from their dreary quotidian lives and sucked into a twilit atmosphere of giddy hedonism. It’s like a drug, and you’ve got the whole stash.
Other identities that will also mark you out as a winner: The Serious Photographer, who shares awesome vistas and encounters with adorable locals from his travels; Ms Passive Aggressive, who alternatives between throwing cornball philosophy and hysterical shade (‘If you won’t love me at my worst, you didn’t deserve me at my best’) at an indifferent world; Word lackey, who’s been working at Eat Shit Corp. for two weeks but acts like their newly adopted orphan. Try mixing it up. So, you’re at the beach, reclining with duckface and and elaborate fruit-bowl-sized cocktail, taking a nice shot of your legs and generally being a Basic Bitch, fine, but why not tweet your hangover as well? Instead of baby pics, which no one wants to see, why share dick pics, which no one wants to see? See which gets more likes/comments, or if anyone even cares.
Read WeChat Nation: How One App Overtook Our Lives here.