Digital Essay 1: WeChat vs. Facebook

By April 2016, WeChat breaks 700 million monthly active users and is quickly catching up to Facebook Messenger, which had 900 million monthly active users by the same time. 

WeChat is an instant messaging application developed by Tencent, first released in January 2011. As a multi-platform service, WeChat is available on Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Phone and Symbian phones. WeChat primarily provides text messaging, hold-to-talk voice messaging, group messaging, voice/video calling, sharing of photographs and videos, and location sharing etc.. WeChat added a payment feature “Wallet” in 2016, which entails an instant billpay function that enables users to order goods and services through a few clicks on a mobile phone, transfer money to other users, and pay in actual stores if the stores have WeChat payment option. WeChat has not only instantly replaced the traditional online chatting platforms and traditional communication technologies such as text messaging and telephone, but also caused rapid shifts in China’s Internet climate and the middle class lifestyle.

Facebook (FB) was launched in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg along with Chris Hughes, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, and Eduardo Saverin. While WeChat focuses on instant messaging as its principle feature, Facebook initially took form as an online social media and social networking service. Facebook added its instant messaging software “Facebook Chat” on April 6, 2008, and released its multi-platform messaging app “Messenger.” The system allows users to directly communicate with each other and immediate access to chat history via Facebook using several different methods.While Messenger is a more dedicated instant messaging software like WeChat, the Moments feature of WeChat application, where people can post feeds, “like,” and comment on the feeds, carries the similar functions as the primary Facebook application. Therefore in this blog I want to compare WeChat with Facebook (including Messenger)fb_icon_325x325within Janet Walker’s four affordances (encyclopedic, spatial, procedural, and participatory) of any digital medium. I would argue that WeChat is a participatory medium designed with the procedural affordance as its top priority, while Facebook, another participatory medium, is built to be encyclopedic.wechat-logo_large WeChat focuses on being a procedural mobile device interface in respect to the spatial affordance, with simple abstract icons listed on the bottom side; while Facebook keeps building up its flourished menu bars and icon panels, and takes up the post-based graphic strategies, combining words with images.

WeChat is an extension of the old participatory media such as online chat rooms. The one-to-one and one-to-many communications through either texts, voice or video calling and publishing posts have been a huge disrupter to traditional transmission channels (Walker, 56). WeChat allows the interactor direct manipulation through the user interface, and each manipulation of the user is a direct reinforcement of the initial model. WeChat convenes the user community with discussions that are “synchronous and asynchronous, spoken and written, individual and collective” (Walker, 56). The chat history is recorded as traditional text messages and can be conveniently searched by typing in specific keywords. As for WeChat, the Web-based interface and an app for iPad exist; however, the user is required to have the app installed on a supported mobile phone for authentication, and neither message roaming nor “Moments” are provided on the Web interface. The Moments function resembles bulletin boards, displaying the instant posts within the past two days. The Moments posted in the past by each user can be viewed by other people in the contact list–upon clicking the profile photo, the user enter an interface where contents are listed in chronological order as on a traditional blog.

As intrinsically a participatory medium, Facebook cunningly inserts the prompt “What’s on your mind?” on the top of its home page to invite user data inputs.

d8c6c987-02d5-438f-9d06-0cd7dfa61b4c-797-0000012349602dab_tmpFacebook has also made variations in the wording of the prompt over the years. While Facebook is designed as highly participatory and heavily draws on the user data to reinforce its original model, it requires the mobile phone user to download another application Messenger to enjoy the Chat feature on the Web interface. In comparison with WeChat, Facebook is highly encyclopedic and navigated towards the Internet. A certain Facebook post can be easily located using a search engine, and a post can always contain links to the Web. While WeChat maintains the mobile phone chat room design, Facebook was designed for maximizing accessibility to information (Walker, 70).

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A layout of WeChat iPhone user interface.
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A layout of Facebook Messenger iPhone user interface.

Compared with FB Messenger, WeChat is strictly procedural despite all the new functions added over the past few years. While Messenger embodies various features on the home page and requires the user to scroll down for more options, on the WeChat interface it never takes more than three clicks to take the user to the desired feature. WeChat has been keeping the rigid and efficient design as an simple screen-based system. The linear design strictly follows the legacy media practices to elevate the overall efficiency, so that any operation on the user interface takes a few unconditional sequences to execute.

The flattened graphic design of WeChat and Facebook interfaces all evoke a sense of minimalist functionality–the common feeling associated with the idea of digital devices–yet the spatial affordances of WeChat and Facebook are fundamentally different. While WeChat borrows the animated visualization from LINE to accommodate its Chinese user community, FB Messenger goes for the futuristic stylization of Apple’s iMessage application. WeChat created a set of original emoticons that includes 105 still-image and animated emoticons, which has been a visual vocabulary recognizably WeChat to its user community.wechat-emoticons WeChat dedicates to keep its interface a shallow space where the menu bar is a simple grid of drawers-like options that directly opens up hidden operating systems. WeChat keeps the original visual design consistent and habitual to its users,giphywhile Facebook keeps releasing new functions. If WeChat has been intending to keep users within the app by infiltrating every aspect of daily life, Facebook seems to regard attraction as the primal objective. Statistics show that WeChat users are evenly distributed by age group, while the majority user of Facebook are those between 25 and 34 years old.
WeChat has not executed any major revision on its overall graphic design, except for adding new icons for recently added functions. WeChat has not only limited the number of icons, but also arranged them in a highly organized grid, probably because WeChat remained primarily a mobile device interface. Initially a Web interface, the menu bars on a Facebook interface proliferated to become long panels of options. In 2008, Facebook migrated all users to a re-organized new interface “Facebook Beta,” which aims for a cleaner look that still highlights a festive and high-tech style. Since Facebook as a social medium is a conveyer of quantitative information, as Walker puts it, no element can be beautiful “if it interferes with agency” (Walker, 79). Facebook adopts a poster-based strategy, integrating words with images in a grid so make all the menus serve but not distract the interaction.

Work Cited

Murray, Janet Horowitz. “Affordances of the Digital Medium.” Inventing the Medium:   Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012. 51-85. Print.

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