My Visit to WeChat: Allen Zhang On How Information Flows Are Shaping Our Lives (1 of 2)

I recently attended WeChat’s Open Class in Guangzhou. It is their big annual event for developers and there were lots of updates on WeChat Work and Mini-Programs. I will be writing about these in subsequent articles.

But it was WeChat founder Allen Zhang’s introductory comments that have really stayed with me. He talked about how smartphones have connected us to widespread information flows. And how these information flows are increasingly shaping – and perhaps controlling – our thinking and our lives. You can see his 12 minute talk here – and my 4 take-aways are below.

But first…

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Ok. Here are my 4 take-aways. Note: These are my words and interpretations. These are not Allen’s words unless quoted.

Take-Away 1: Information on smartphones now dwarfs information from our experiences in the real world.

The recent transition from PCs to smartphones (plus the advent of cheap data plans) has been a massive change in our ability to access information. Allen commented on how hundreds of millions of people are now spending so much of their time browsing information on their smartphones. And that people now have more access to more information on their phones than they could ever experience in the real world.

Plus you can hear sounds and see images from distant places. He noted that in the past, the size of a person’s world was determined by the radius of how far they could walk. But now the size of a “person’s world is determined by the breadth and quality information they can obtain”.

These information flows are a sea change in the human experience. And this has lots of implications for companies like Tencent. It also creates new responsibilities. For example, any changes WeChat makes can significantly alter the flow of information to hundreds of millions of people.

Take-Away 2: The breadth and quality of information a person receives is the critical issue.

Allen’s comment that “a person’s world is determined by the breadth and quality of information they can obtain” was my big take-away from the conference. These information flows really do constitute so much of the world a person actually perceives and lives in. And so the breadth and quality of the information are critical. What you see or read absolutely determines what thoughts you have. And it may determine what kind of person you are.

But can people really control this level of interconnected information?

Are they able to select and shape the information they receive?

Or is the technology guiding – and perhaps controlling – people’s thinking, feelings and lifestyles?

I challenge you to spend any time on Twitter and not feel angry or outraged. Certain online sites are clearly feeding information specifically to provoke certain emotional reactions. Outrage seems to be the default strategy to get more engagement and clicks.

Take-Away 3: The biggest benefit of these information flows is an expansion and enrichment of social relationships.

Allen mentioned 5-6 issues related to the emergence of these widespread information flows. They include:

  • Loss of privacy. This happens with technology generally but it is particularly rapid with targeted advertising.
  • The difficulty of searching information on smartphones vs. PCs. Information on smartphones is more fragmented into mobile apps. So searching is more limited. Although mini-programs at scale may solve some of this problem.
  • The importance of a diversity of information. Most platforms (like WeChat) try to balance the information from smaller content creators vs. those with large followings.

But the biggest issue and the biggest benefit he mentioned (in my opinion) is:

  • The ability to expand and enrich of our social relationships.

Allen said “people are the sum of their social relations” and I think this is overwhelmingly true. Human beings did not evolve by natural selection out in the wild like other animals. The ecosystem in which we evolved was a social one. We did not compete on the savanna. We competed in villages and families – for mates, for status, for friends, etc. We evolved to get along with each other. To coordinate activities. To mate. To form families. And to make each other happy. We evolved for social interactions.

But, according to British anthropologist Richard Dunbar, we are cognitively limited to about 150 friends (i.e., “Dunbar’s number”). That is the maximum number of people with which a person can maintain stable social relationships. And where you know who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.

Allen cited Dunbar’s number and said smartphone-enabled information flows have let us go beyond this. We can now interact and have relationships with many more people. Information flows have both expanded and enriched our social relations. In WeChat, this mostly happens via individual chats, group chats and Moments. Allen also mentioned that this is why you can have 5,000 friends on WeChat, not just 150.

Take-Away 4: The biggest problem is the power of passive information consumption – especially push notifications and newsfeeds.

If what you see or read determines what thoughts you have and possibly what kind of person you are, then the type and quality of information you see or read is critical. And unfortunately, most of this selection process happens passively. It is not the person taking the initiative and guiding the selection process. It is mostly being determined by companies and/or technology. With push notifications and newsfeeds being mostly in charge.

Allen commented that “what is pushed determines what the user sees and what kind of world they live in.” And that “push notifications make use lazy”. That we “let them take precedence over what we choose to see”.

Isn’t this how most newsfeeds work? You sit and scroll down a presented list of topics.

Isn’t this how autoplay works? Youtube and Netflix immediately play the next episode.

Isn’t this how push notifications work? Your eye is drawn to the notification and you check to see what companies and individuals are sending you.

A related issue that Allen cited was “difficulties in information selection”. We simply don’t have time to select things one by one. So passive consumption and push notifications fill the void. Algorithms and technology mostly determine what we see and read. At best, this is a personalized process based on what we have chosen to view in the past. Or what others have viewed. The base case is it is mostly a thoughtless process just run by machines incapable of thinking. And the worst case is it is actively used for influence, manipulation and misinformation.

A second issue with information selection is that it is very difficult to rate the quality of content with technology. How can non-thinking AI determine the quality of a video or article? We rely on people to identify quality information and thinking. But this can also be manipulated. Plus this is exacerbated by the rapid manner in which events and emotion-inducing content (woke outrage, fake news) go viral and spread very quickly person-to-person. Rating quality of content is difficult in general. But it is almost impossible to do quickly.

***

Anyways, those are my four main take-aways from Allen’s talk . I think the question he raises is incredibly important.

How do you manage the breadth and quality of information flows that are increasingly shaping our thinking and constituting so much our life experience?

In Part 2, I’ll compare WeChat’s approach to this question with the approach of another rock star Chinese company, TikTok.

Thanks for reading – jeff

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I write and speak about digital China and Asia’s latest tech trends.

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