Allen Zhang, the creator of WeChat, did not show up at this year’s annual WeChat Open Class Pro, a conference where the WeChat World is showcased and discussed.

However, he delivered a video message to the audience (including developers) in Guangzhou yesterday (9 Jan 2020). In the recording, he said he deliberately missed the conference – as he had mentioned before, attending a conference is very time consuming for him.

He also reiterated that the WeChat team would always speak with their product. “You know that WeChat has never held a launch/release conference. I believe that the new version itself is a launch conference, as hundreds of millions of users will be covered.”

He mentioned that last year, WeChat team had already grown to a large size. The challenge they face have morphed from “How” in the early days to “What” of present day.

In the past, they would focus on each feature, and figure out how to do it well. Now the focus is to decide what to do and what not. “In early days it was a test of our product capabilities, now it is testing our organisational capabilities,” he said.

“I Hope that our team would have outstanding deep thinker in each area,” he said that was the reason why he decided not to show up himself, whilst giving more opportunities to the team.

He shared some reflections:

The impact of interconnectivity 

WeChat occupies highest screenshot amongst apps in China. For the WeChat team, any modification would create a big change in how information flows.

“It is like gene editing,” he said. “We are changing natural selection with technology.”

The information from the screen, often from far far away, has surpassed the information from the real world. “The width and quality of information is a key issue WeChat needs to resolve.”

He believes that the impact could be views from a few dimensions: letting go of privacy, passive information acquisition, expanded and complex social relationships, fast broadcasting of information, difficulty of information choice, diversity of information, and challenges in search.

Letting go of privacy

The more technology evolves, the less privacy people possess. There is a trade off between convenience and privacy.

“For example, ads targeting and user privacy are conflicting,” he said. “As a platform, we have tonnes of data. What should we use, and what should we not – it is always a problem that we are thinking about. And we hope our peers in other companies pay serious attention to this issue too.”

Passive information acquisition

Internet has made information abundant. However, what information to acquire from the sea of available data is a very challenging issue.

In fact, lots of users stopped actively look for information, and opted for passive information instead. “A few years ago I said: push changed the world, because the users became even lazier,” he stressed. “Wechat is based on push too. Every push notification you receive becomes higher in priority than the information you really need or want.”

Therefore which information to push would determine what users can see and even which world they would live in. “It is a problem that we constantly think about, and work towards solving,” Zhang said.

Expanded and complex social relationships

In the past, people believed in Dunbar’s number, where the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships is usually 150.

With WeChat, this number is apparently broken. Suddenly people can have thousands of friends that they interact with.

“In the past we limit the number of contacts one can add to 5000,” Zhang explained. “However, we have almost 1 million users who are reaching or passing this limit.”

As a result, WeChat is actually removing this limit. However Zhang said he is actually very aware that this could bring some serious impact in the way people manage their social relationships. “Honest we are anxious about that and we will keep thinking.”

Fast broadcasting of information

Information now travels super fast. The same incident could spread exponentially, in no time.

That gives possibility of rumours and fake information being spread even faster than legitimate info – as such information always catches more attention. “It’s human nature.”

Zhang said it is actually quite difficult to use technology to determine the quality of information. So other means must be added – for instance, leveraging the users to help determine and arbirtate, “just lik the way we detect plagiarism”.

Difficulty of information choice

For users, when facing information overload, it is difficult to choose what to read, and what not to. “As a result, we always only see partial information.”

To solve that, WeChat has tried social recommendation, which leverages users’ contacts to recommend content. Zhang said this experiment is working out well.

Diversity of information

In an age where everyone can share information, WeChat hopes that even the long tail authors would have room to survive and keep sharing. “This is something we overlooked in WeChat official accounts in the past.”

The original thought about official accounts was for them to become a way brands to broadcast messages to interested consumers, therefor eradicating spam SMSes. The WeChat team intended for all sorts of content (including video etc.) to be distributed through such a channel.

However, by accident, articles became the most prolific format. However, not every one of the billion plus users can write – but everyone can snap a photo and share.

Zhang revealed that soon WeChat would allow short form content, if everything goes well. “Ultimately expressing themselves is a desire of any human being.”

“Take this as a pre-announcement of our new version”.

Challenges in search

As compared to web, mobile internet is made up of apps, which makes information segregated and hard to search. “The reason why we went into Mini Programmes is to make all the information searchable.”

However, Mini Programmes are still in their infancy – there are a lot of product improvements needed to make it truly capable of supporting all sorts of information search.

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at [email protected].