With Elon Musk nearing another deal to buy Twitter, speculation has resurfaced about how the billionaire plans to transform the social network. from Musk tweet this week offered a clue: “Buying Twitter is an accelerator for creating X, the everything app.”
While Musk didn’t elaborate on what X would look like, many think he aims to emulate the success of WeChat, which has become pretty much the everything app in China over the past decade. People use it to read the news, take rides, make doctor’s appointments, pay taxes, and do countless other daily activities.
That may indeed be Musk’s idea, as he is full of praise for Tencent’s messenger. In his first town hall with Twitter staff in JuneTesla founder addressed WeChat as a possible vision for the American social network.
And, you know, when I think of WeChat in China, which is actually a great app, but there’s no WeChat movement outside of China. And I think there’s a real opportunity to create that. You actually live on WeChat in China because it is so useful and so useful for your daily life. And I think if we could achieve that, or even come close with Twitter, it would be a huge success.
WeChat has long been celebrated in the West as one of the greatest inventions to emerge from the Chinese internet. And Tencent’s investment in Tesla has likely given Musk an insight into the Chinese internet giant. But is the WeChat model really a desirable product for the US?
The exact WeChat features that impress Musk are also the source of criticism of the app. The all-in-one messenger has basically built a walled garden, critics say, where e-commerce transactions only take place through the payment app and information used by users is published in WeChat’s infrastructure or third-party services supported by tencent. Links of Tencent’s nemesis, such as Alibaba and Douyin (TikTok’s sister in China), were inaccessible on WeChat until Beijing’s recent anti-monopoly movement began to tear down its thick walls.
A super app can bring convenience to users as they barely have to leave the platform – which in turn helps increase revenue for the company – but the model can stifle competition and foreclose user choices.
Aside from these concerns, could Musk still match WeChat’s success in the US?
Unlikely, at least not WeChat in its current state. The messaging app thrived under conditions unique to China, both for better and for worse. Before we get into what WeChat has done well, let’s not forget that its core as a social messaging app makes it fundamentally different from Twitter, a social media platform. The fact that it is a chat app means that it is very sticky. With over 1.3 billion users, WeChat is the ubiquitous messenger in China, while people mainly go on Twitter to consume information rather than talk to people they know in real life.
The unfair advantages of WeChat
WeChat didn’t start all over again. Tencent was already China’s social networking king with QQ, an ICQ-related messenger that took off in the PC era. Not long after WeChat launched in 2011, Tencent opened QQ’s massive social chart to WeChat, giving people the opportunity to add QQ friends on WeChat. If Musk were to build X from scratch, he could play with funneling users from Twitter to the new platform. But, sticking to the WeChat analogy, it would compete in a market filled with WhatsApp, Messenger, Telegram and others.
WeChat consists of many apps folded into one, and messaging is a gateway through which people discover the plethora of features it has added over the years. One of the early killer features is a content publishing feature called Public Accounts. When Public Accounts launched in 2012, Weibo and blogging platforms were the two places for Chinese internet users to share their voices. The former had a 140-character limit, like Twitter, while blogs were especially popular among Chinese elites. Built on an everyday chat app, Public Accounts quickly attracted everyone from economists to small business owners looking to spread ideas.
By early 2021, 360 million users read articles through public accounts. Every organization that needs to produce content is on WeChat, from state media to fashion brands. The online media landscape in the US is a lot more diverse. People read news on news apps, seek thought leadership on LinkedIn, and meet brands’ stories through blogs. Most companies in China may not have a website, but they probably have a public WeChat account.
Over time, Public Accounts has turned into a digital infrastructure for businesses that is no different from Shopify. That was made possible with the launch of WeChat Pay in 2013. While America has spent the past decade improving magnetic card transactions, China has never had widespread adoption of credit cards and went straight from cash to mobile payments using of QR codes.
WeChat Pay quickly attracted massive users by becoming the default payment option for a few popular apps, including ride-hailing upstart Didi and food delivery platform Meituan – both of which are backed by Tencent, one of the most prolific business investors in the world. If Musk were to launch a new payment solution that follows the WeChat Pay playbook, he would have to form alliances with other internet giants to drive adoption.
WeChat’s role as the backbone for e-commerce has only become more omnipotent over time. In 2017, it started letting developers build lite apps that run in WeChat. Businesses that sold products through static Public Account pages could now run WeChat-based stores that have all the basic features of an e-commerce app. Pinduoduo, the social commerce startup that grew to rival Alibaba in half a century, started off as a mini-app thanks to its seamless integration with WeChat’s social features. Imagine being able to browse Amazon on WhatsApp, share product pages with your contacts, and make a purchase without leaving the messenger.
After WeChat turned itself into the Word Wide Web for China’s mobile internet, WeChat built an app ecosystem in itself. Tech companies like Amazon, Uber, Facebook and Square are unlikely to want to join a hypothetical X-super app as they already have a stronghold in their industry and control over user data. Under the WeChat model, Musk would essentially be competing against established tech giants with hundreds of millions of users and their own payment products.
The Tesla Advantage
Rather than mimicking WeChat, Musk could exploit a coveted advantage by Tencent. Most of the top internet companies in China, including Tencent, have invested in or partnered with an electric vehicle manufacturer. While some of their investments are simply financial, others are betting on a future where smart vehicles will become a major portal for entertainment, shopping and even information consumption – and they want to have skin in the game.
Indeed, Tencent has already partnered with its portfolio company Nio, one of the fastest-growing EV startups in China, to news program tailored to people while driving. Nio could easily connect a range of other third-party applications, such as video streaming services and voice assistants, to the in-car operating system. And Tesla could do that too.
Tesla already has the infrastructure for this. As my colleague Kirsten wrote:
Tesla is open to third-party developers. The Tesla API is technically private. But it does exist, allowing Tesla’s own first-party app to interact with the cars to do things like read battery charge status and lock doors. Reverse engineering allows a third-party app to communicate directly with the API.
WeChat’s achievement is inspiring, but it may not be what the American public wants and the vast online consumer empire cannot be easily replicated outside of the Chinese context. Musk could take the Tesla app and weave it into his hypothetical X project, taking cues from how WeChat formed a vibrant in-app ecosystem with third-party developers, but even Tesla’s EV dominance and social network. in hand if the Twitter deal goes through, that still doesn’t match an “everything” app.