TikTok, WeChat and the Need for an American Vision for Shaping Digital Information Flows.


A few years ago, I went to the WeChat Open Talk meeting in Guangzhou and founder Allen Zhang (see photo) gave a talk that really stuck with me. He talked about about the powerful role of information flows in society and life. And how the digitization of these information flows has created a situation where they can be controlled at very large scale.

His talk is here but my basic take-away is the below questions.

  • Digital information flows are programing our thinking, constituting much of our life experience and shaping our societies. What is the vision and the values by which they should be shaped?
  • Who should have the power to do this?

And I think we can see at least two starkly different answers to these questions right now. One from WeChat and one from TikTok. And the TikTok example is pretty timely. I think this question about shaping information flows is most of what the US Congress is currently debating with regards to TikTok. Although I think that Congressional discussion has degenerated into an embarrassing debacle and a naked power grab.

Why Digital Information Flows (at Scale) Are So Powerful

In his talk, Allen had 4 main points about digital information flows at large scale. But these are my words, not his.

  1. Information from our smartphones now dwarfs the information we get from our experiences in the real world. We’ll call these digital information flows.
  2. The breadth and quality of digital information a person receives is a critical issue. It shapes how we think and how we perceive the world.
  3. The biggest benefit of digital information flows is a likely an expansion and enrichment of our social relationships. We can hundreds of friends instead of twenty.
  4. The biggest problem is information we passively consume without any decision-making. We mindlessly consume newsfeeds (like TikTok and Facebook).

The point is digital information flows (at large scale and mostly via smartphones) are increasingly defining and shaping our lives and societies. So the quality, quantity and management of these flows is an increasingly important issue. Within this, social media sites (Facebook, TikTok, WeChat, Twitter) are, without question, the most powerful hubs for shaping information flows. They control not only information from organizations to individuals (big) but also information shared between individuals (very big).

The mechanism by which these information flows are shaped is a combination of algorithms and user feedback. But these systems are created by human architects. Local “editors”. In podcasts, I have argued that these social media companies (Twitter, WeChat, Facebook, etc.) effectively play the role of:

  • Editor-in-chief – shaping and curating news and information.
  • High school principal or local priest – encouraging and discouraging certain values.
  • Local mayor – setting the rules for appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the community.

That’s how I see Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. They are play the roles of editor in chief, high school principal and local mayor for their online communities.

So the key questions are:

  • Who do we trust for these roles (Elon Musk? Mark Zuckerberg?)
  • What values do they have?

That’s mostly how I view this. And the current Congressional squabbling about TikTok. 


There is a another side to this Allen Zhang didn’t mention. Before you can manage information flow, you have to attract and keep people’s attention in your social media or other app. And the things a CEO does to achieve such engagement this seriously impacts the above four issues.

What attracts users and get engagement and what creates a positive experience and community may be very different.

The analogy I use for this is the supermarket. Go to any supermarket and you will see some healthy food in the back (apples, milk, bread) but you will also see the front half the store full potato chips, soda, alcohol, and candy. There is a difference between what gets people to come to the store and what is good for them.

So really there two often conflicting ideas here:

  • Getting and retaining user attention. That is required for social media. 
  • What are the value and people that managing the breadth and quality of information flows at scale. 

We brings us to WeChat vs. TikTok, which are offering two starkly different answers to these questions.

WeChat’s Vision: Provide Useful Tools.

Tencent and ByteDance are in direct competition for the time and attention of Chinese consumers.

  • Tencent offers online gaming, music, videos, webpages, messenger and the WeChat “super app”.
  • ByteDance offers short videos, news aggregators, funny jokes and lots of other apps.

Both are focused first on getting users attention and then keeping it. TikTok monetizes through digital advertising. Tencent monetizes through ads, micro-purchases and gifting. And both are super successful in this fight for attention. ByteDance is so good at getting attention that it has successfully gone into hundreds of countries. And in the USA alone, it now has 3 mobile apps in the top downloads (TikTok, CapCut and Lemon8).

Ok. Fine. So there are two players with the power (by virtue of attention) to shape the digital information flows.

  • What is their vision?
  • How are they shaping digital information flows? 

We can start with Allen Zhang and WeChat. Because he really figured out social networks first.

He is kind of like Steve Jobs circa 1980. When the PC was just a vague idea, Jobs accurately predicted what it would become – a consumer tool used mostly for writing, photos, communicating and games. At the time, IBM said it would mostly be a tool for scientists (wrong). Other companies said it would mostly be a business tool (mostly wrong). Virtually all the other PC makers got it wrong in that first wave and died fast. Steve Jobs had it right almost immediately. And before everyone else. 

I think Allen got social networks right while Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter (pre-Elon) really went down the wrong path. My assessment of Allen’s vision was that:

  • Social networks should be about private connections and private chats. Most of our social interactions in real life are private conversations. We rarely say things or communicate to a broader public. So WeChat’s focus on one-to-one and small group private chats was spot on. And this was a big contrast to Facebook’s focus on posting lots public comments and public updates.
  • Private conversations are both more healthy and honest. This is like the vegetables and milk at the back of the market. It’s just healthier than the chips and soda. We are our normal true selves when talking to friends and colleagues privately. And doing more private chatting with friends does not make us unhappy. In fact, private conversations make us happy and better people.
  • Public conversations and statements have lots of bad effects. First, we are usually not our true selves when we are talking in public. We make ourselves into a fake, public version of ourselves. We only post photos that look good. We only say the good things (“I got a raise”). We look for feedback and validation. And there is lots of envy and showing off. There are just lots of bad psychological effects that happen when you go from private to public conversations. Notice now the more you use Facebook and Twitter (pre-Elon) the more unhappy and envious you feel.
  • Social networks should be useful tools and are not a place for passive consumption. You get on WeChat, send a message to a friend, tell your work chat group what time the meeting is, make a payment, and then close it. Yes, WeChat wants your attention as a useful tool. According to Allen, it doesn’t want you just sitting passively consuming content. And they have revenue sources beyond advertising so this works. But this is the opposite of Facebook that basically wants you on their site all day mindlessly reading messages, posts and notifications that keep being automatically served up. Now WeChat has focused on short videos, so I’m not sure if Allen isn’t changing his mind on this.

That is my interpretation of Allen’s visions for social networks. And I think you can see much of this in what WeChat has become. It’s mostly private conversations (one-to-one and group chat). There is some sharing within the social network, mostly through Moments and now Channels. But it is overwhelmingly about private communication and lots of useful tools like payments and now mini-programs. The percentage of the supermarket dedicated to alcohol and potato chips is relatively small.

Now compare all that to TikTok.

TikTok’s Vision: Give Consumers Pretty Much Whatever They Want.

There was a widely discussed article in the New Yorker by Jia Tolentino titled How TikTok Holds Our Attention, which is aptly titled. TikTok is 100% in the business of keeping your attention. It is what they do best. They build algorithms that are really good at predicting what you most want to see. Their supermarket is 90% filled with chips, beer and candy. 

I think there are four defining aspects of TikTok.

  1. It is not a social network like WeChat. It is more like YouTube in that it is an audience builder platform that connects content creators with viewers. Who you know is not that important versus what you like to watch.
  2. The content type (short videos) are very effective at keeping attention and engagement. Short videos can be consumed like eating potato chips. One after the next after the next. The videos they show tend to have an emotional impact via dancing, music, and humor. They also use lots of music, which has an emotional impact. And the content runs on a continuous newsfeed that immediately tees up one video after the next.
  3. The AI engine (their strength) is 100% focused on predicting what you most want to see next. And unlike YouTube, the AI also makes the decision for you. It doesn’t just make 5 recommendations of videos to watch. It automatically plays the next one for you. Minus a flick of the thumb it is 100% passive consumption.
  4. The content is designed to be viral and to get engagement by viewers. You can easily edit and share videos you watch. You can make your own videos. You can remix ones you like. You can respond to challenges (“make your own catwalk video”). That gets you a lot of engagement and sharing. And it focuses the platform on what people most want to see, as determined by what they edit and share.

So if WeChat is mostly about providing private communication and useful tools, TikTok is mostly about feeding you an endless stream of what it thinks you want to see, mostly regardless of quality. And they have run into political issues about trivial, outrageous and sometimes vulgar content. It’s a site pretty filled with people in bathing suits and such.

A couple more thoughts.

  • TikTok videos are super easier to watch one after the next. It’s very addictive. There is definitely a lot of powerful consumer psychology in short videos.
  • Short videos get TikTok more data on what people like because they flip through lots of them quickly. AI depends on lots of data, so this helps.
  • Short videos are particularly easy for users to create or to build upon. A viewer can just turn the smartphone around and make their own video. Or just edit and share an existing one. It is a very short step from viewer to content creator. 

So ByteDance and TikTok are just outstanding at attracting users and getting their time and attention (that’s always step one). But they have very different visions for shaping information flows at scale (that’s step two).

What is America’s Vision for Digital Information Flows at Scale?

As the US Congress pushes to ban TikTok, whose vision for information flows is more concerning? TikTok’s or Facebook’s?

Personally, I trust TikTok far more than I do Facebook. There are movies made about how little Mark Zuckerberg should be trusted. Plus, TikTok is Chinese so it is very closely watched. There is little trust. They have to be on their best behavior all the time. That’s pretty good.

Elon Musk has emerged as an interest player in information flows. He is editor in chief, high school principal and local mayor of Twitter. And you do know exactly what his values are. He is very open about his belief in free speech and he explains what he is doing. I think that is actually the kind of local editor function we want. We want 4-5 different people shaping the information flows and, like Elon, telling you exactly what their values are. 

There are ultimately important questions:

  • Digital information flows are programing our thinking, constituting much of our life experience and shaping our societies. What is the vision and the values by which they should be shaped?
  • Who should have the power to do this?

My own opinion is that digital information flows should be shaped locally. I want an editor in chief at the local newspaper, a priest at the town church and a local mayor. At a minimum, I want it done country by country, which is “info nationalism”. I think a few trusted companies in India (Jio?) should be shaping the news, information, values and behavior online for India. Not some companies in Silicon Valley. The more local the better for this role.

And I think we need an American vision for shaping digital information flows. This is ultimately about values. The US has traditionally had a strong vision for freedom of speech and classical liberal democracy. I’d like to hear something like that. Managing social media sites is actually a lot like running a government. You are in the private governance business. Unfortunately, the governance model chosen by most social media companies is “dictator for life”. 

That’s it. Thanks for reading. – Jeff


Related articles:

From the Concept Library, concepts for this article are:

  • Information Flows

From the Company Library, companies for this article are:

  • TikTok
  • WeChat



Leave a Reply