WeChat: Shaking China

David Feng(Bio, All Articles)

Happy Year of the Sheep!

Some of us might remember what the shake does in Google Maps — we had quite a few that “shook” the phone with the app running by mistake — and were asked to provide feedback at a time when we were more likely shaking the app for having led us into a cul-de-sac! (Obviously, the timing wasn’t quite right!)

The shaking continued, as of late, but in a different part of the world…

Shake WeChat

In China, where the Year of the Goat (or Ram, or Sheep) was being celebrated, WeChat, a very popular instant messaging and social media network (which, given its functionality set, no longer qualifies as a “mere Facebook for China”), was the centre of activity. It probably mattered less than the main show on Chinese New Year’s Eve was supposedly the New Year’s Gala on Central Television; to most, it was more about shaking one’s smartphone. At fixed time, the social network would release “red packets of money”, which would be electronically credited to a user’s account — and to get that, users would shake their smartphones with the WeChat app running. Obviously, because this was getting something for nothing, much of the audience’s attention was fixed — to the five-inch screen of the average smartphone rather than the fifty-inch television screen in the main room!

A glance at the statistics (from Chinese site TMT Post) would give readers more insight on the “mass shaking”…

  • 11 billion times: This was how many “shakes” were registered for the entire duration of China Central Television’s 2015 Spring Festival Gala (running from 20:00 on 18 February 2015 to 00:48 the next day)
  • 810 million shakes: At 22:34 on 18 February 2015, this was how many “shakes” were registered.
  • 1.01 billion: The total amount of “red packets of money” sent on Chinese New Year’s Eve (a general total).

Unsurprisingly, most of the shaking took place in the better-developed eastern half of China, with the coastal areas between Shanghai and Guangzhou (Canton) being the most active. (This is because most of the larger cities in China are in the eastern part of the country.)

Users weren’t always guaranteed a win, however, and in most cases, a surprising number of people went into the new year empty-handed. However, there were also cases to “shake and greet” friends and family on WeChat — which made a message quite unique.

What This Means for the Spring Festival Gala

WeChat remains highly popular with the young — and it shows a further “split” in audiences. Jokes often tell of those born in the 1950s watching TV using 50-inch screens, whilst those born in the 1990s would watch it on their 9-inch phablets. This probably couldn’t have been truer with the rush for “red packets of money”, most likely from users born in the 1970s and later.

Increasingly, the younger generation have steadily tuned out of the Spring Festival Gala in past years, regarding it more as an official propaganda show “with Spring Festival characteristics”. In response, directors have tended to “rejuvenate” the show, using more than a mere sprinkling of Internet language. (This has also provoked a backlash from the elder generation, whom now were unable to wade through the “young netspeak”!)

To try to attract as many young viewers as possible, Chinese Central TV has made efforts to make the show more relevant to younger audiences. Linking it up with WeChat and getting young people excited about “shaking” for prizes has proven to be a hit — to the extent many of the servers were tottering during peak demand periods.

This year, there were other interactive elements with a WeChat element on the Spring Festival Gala. Users were able to submit their pictures of family gatherings so they could win the chance of having it shown publicly on television. In a country excited as ever about singing (this still being the case even with the recent closure of a noted karaoke centre in Beijing), Central TV decided to “crowdsource” the singing of parts of the song, It’s Hard to Forget Tonight (难忘今宵), which is often played at the very end of the gala.

That element also worked well, although viewers reported hearing people singing out of tune (but what can one expect when hundreds, if not thousands, are singing — apparently uncoordinated — at the same time?). The gala has certainly come a long way since its very first editions in earlier years — the Chinese President no longer comes on stage to make deliver political speeches, and the audience is increasingly given more “stage access”, even if they are comparatively more minor.

What This Means for Interaction on Television

Television was never a “truly” interactive medium in the strictest of the sense. A camera set and an external microphone are probably the mere essentials when associating with “anything TV”; this, in fact, doesn’t even come close to what is needed for what some might term as “the full enchilada”: also highly essential are editing tools and the means to make your TV channel visible to the audience — often a case of “the more, the merrier”. Budgets easily run into five or six digits on the roughest of all guesses for the mere essentials; anything more sophisticated, and the number of figures before the decimal point will continue to build.

The Internet, on the other hand, is much more interactive than television. Even if no external devices were purchased and only the average high-end Apple smartphone is used, the cost is still well within £800 (or around RMB 8,000), or just a little more if a data pack with Internet access comes into play. Users are given, on platform such as YouTube (internationally) or Youku (inside China), much the same level playing field as the traditional broadcasters — whom also happen to be on the service.

Due to the fact that setting up a TV station can be prohibitively expensive, setting up something digitised that is similar on the Internet is much more attractive. This means that, through the Internet, audiences will be increasingly more interactive. In fact, Ha Wen, director of the gala, was quoted as hoping people would be “happy” in taking part in interaction (as well as watching the traditional gala on TV). This obviously worked — but it also took away more eyes from the big screen as some were addicted to shaking for prizes.


What This Means for Platforms Like WeChat

For platforms such as WeChat, the one big differentiator that will continue to build — and make the service unique — is just how much it won’t be a mere “Facebook for China”. At the very least, shaking your smartphone with Facebook running will likely turn out a far less spectacular result — than getting something for nothing!

WeChat has caught on as it is appearing to become “the one app for everything”, but also because it has hit a sweet spot with the authorities. Weibo and other the microblog providers provided users with a stage to be heard (provided you were retweeted by key users known as the “big Vs”), but this also has meant there were far greater risks for the site operators — even if keywords were checked before posting, the creativity of some users would mean that content Beijing finds objectionable might still be able to escape and be disseminated.

WeChat, on the other hand, doesn’t force users to adopt a “real” real-name policy (unless you register for a public account, whereupon you have to have a picture of you holding your Chinese ID card taken). However, posted on the basic service are only available to a user’s friends; there is no “follow” option for random strangers, and users often will create lists or tag lists to limited what is shared with whom. If one elects to deliberately neglect WeChat’s public accounts, the speed at which content Beijing might find objectionable will spread at much faster rates on Weibo than on WeChat. The Chinese government is probably less scared about critical comments than it is of people using the Internet to mobilise. The combination of “one app for all”, plus a system which brings less headaches for the censors, might make WeChat the social service for China.

Where a network continues to grow, it will inevitably add new “bells and whistles”, and the redone “shake” function to, with a bit of luck, beget users an extra bit of pocket money in the form of “red packets of money” is a plus for users and vendors alike. For commercial enterprises, it is in particular a big winner when branding is included. For users, especially those in China, they could always want a little more of a little something for free.

(The ultimate example would have been what happened to Beijing in 2003. When a new pay ringway opened in the Chinese capital, very few cars used it; they favoured a heavily congested, but still free, ringway a little closer to the centre of town. The Chinese are far likelier to pay for something that is of real value — and what value is there not “red packets of money” that contain money — given to you (or won by you) for free?)

What This Means for the Future

It’s still too early to say if the era of non-interactive TV is over — not just for China but on a wider basis. TV channels in central China have tried to get people excited by showing QR codes or getting people to shake at random times — with prizes the dimensions of TVs at times.

Television has remained rather “non-interactive” in the day of the Internet. It might have started an “interactive” medium in its earlier days, but with platforms as dynamic and interactive as the Web, it no longer has what it has to keep audiences merely glued to the screen.

Whether or not this will “stick” in future still remains to be seen. It’s tempting to say that what has happened now has moved mountains — a more accurate reflection would have been that it was a good, interactive addition to a show that has been part of the Spring Festival, certainly in more recent decades. Whether or not this will stick for other Chinese festivals, such as the Moon Festival, will be something one will only find out when we get nearer to the day.

Spring Festival

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