Connected intelligence, the ubiquitous experience of WeChat


Connected intelligence, the ubiquitous experience of WeChat

It’s undeniable that the world today is inextricably both a digital and a physical experience, while the two states are not always melded, they are quite often interoperable.  Every innovation in the digital world has acted as a portal to the physical world, and every subsequent optimisation of that innovation seeks to make that portal more seamless. In many ways our ability to use digital payment services to conduct economic transactions or a messaging platform to conduct social communication is a form of interoperability – our digital proxies interoperating with our physical world to manifest certain outcomes. 

The end goal that this iterates towards is a connected intelligence network. The focus of such a network is to not just service the individual but to intelligibly cater to their underlying intentions when interacting with digital proxies.

To better understand this we can clarify each component of a  “connected intelligence network” as:

Connected: seamless interaction between all digital proxies that serve an individual e.g. transaction related proxies, communication related proxies, consumption related proxies etc. 

Intelligence: the ability for the digital proxies and those that leverage them to accurately serve the individual’s true intent. Intent can always be categorised as either social or economic in nature. 

Network: an interoperable fabric that enables proxies to service individual intent without inhibitive barriers. if the individuals various forms of intent form pathways – this is the collective map of those pathways. 

A lot of the technology we use today achieves a certain extent of connectivity, intelligence and network formation, but ‘individual intent’ remains a concept difficult to configure and optimise for. The ability to amplify the individual’s intent through digital proxies depends on aptly capturing the sophisticated nature of individual experience in the physical world. A simple model that emulates the individual’s experience in the physical world could look like three concentric circles:

The core – the self: the inner circle comprises the individual themselves and defines the parameters of their fulfilment 

The inner bound – the self in the private context: the personal world within which humans form close, meaningful ties to family, friends, colleagues and so on. 

The outer bound – the self in the public context: the individual’s interactions with the world more broadly. 

The social hierarchy of an individual
The social hierarchy of an individual

WeChat: a connected intelligence network

To contextualise this in a real-world example we can look to WeChat, an interesting case study in how servicing the three tiers of the individual’s experience has led to a form of the connected intelligence network. Through the incorporation of a social network, payments system and an ecosystem flushed with third-party services, WeChat has managed to intelligibly map the one billion individuals using the platform – not just augmenting their day but providing a pervasive expression of their social and economic intent. 

What’s really impressive is that WeChat has extrapolated on the Chinese philosophy of ‘Guanxi’ to emulate the individual’s experience in the physical world, at scale. ‘Guanxi’ places an emphasis on relationships and trust especially within the bound of ‘the self in their private context’, and as the individual’s connections expand outward toward the ‘self in the public context’ the ties get weaker. With this in mind let’s take a look at how WeChat has deployed an iterative process to strengthen each of the concentric social circles within its ecosystem:

The self –  WeChat after launching in 2011 gained traction and network effect rapidly by solving a core issue at the time, removing the need to pay cross-operator SMS fees which was the prevalent mode of messaging. The access to free messaging enabled WeChat’s users to create small circles with the individual as the locus, much like what Whatsapp does for messaging now. 

The self in the private context – In 2012 WeChat introduced ‘Moments’ for closed circles, enabling users to express themselves in the private context of family and close friends. Moments allowed individuals to post updates and share photos, videos and articles which appeared as a news feed, visible only to inner circles.

The self in the public context – In light of focusing on close relationships within the private context, WeChat was conscious of ensuring that the introduction of the public sphere (which enabled individuals to act on economic intent) did not detract from the individual’s social intent. 

The economic activities found a foothold in closed circles, branching out to create pathways between strangers only when it was possible within a natural and trusted environment guided by the user’s intent. This manifested in the form of recommendations made by trusted family and friends, or official accounts that the user sought out of their own accord. The official accounts were initially created for celebrities, but eventually expanded to brands and enterprises with whom users could directly engage with. 

WeChat also exerted careful control of spam messages and adverts, only introducing advertising to Moments four years after WeChat’s launch, always prioritising the user’s empowerment to dictate their exposure. The extension of the  “private circles” environment to brands and businesses played a pivotal role in smoothly integrating the users’ experience across both social and economic intent. 

While WeChat did well to service the individual’s social intent and to some extent, economic intent across the three layers – it did not yet enable the execution of economic intent within the app ecosystem. This leaves us just short of a true connected intelligence network, specifically on the connectivity front – “the seamless interaction between all digital proxies that serve an individual”. The introduction of a payment system, WeChat Pay, in 2014 is what allowed WeChat to create an actually optimal proxy of the user’s physical life. Now economic intent could move from interaction to execution all within the one trusted environment. In fact, we can go as far as to identify WeChat Pay features that have built robustness into all three social circles just as its previous features did:

The self – Payment integration enables users to pay bills, utilities and other personal expenses 

The self in the private context – The Red Packets feature, introduced during Chinese New Year and later made a permanent function, enables individuals to send money to other users in their inner circles. 

The self in the public context – WeChat Pay enables purchases in-app and with third party merchants including payments for purchases in the physical world (restaurant bills, taxi etc.)

WeChat, accounting for 34% of all mobile traffic in China, achieved its scale and reach by providing users with a proxy of themselves that crosses the divide between the digital and physical world, while maintaining the integrity of their various intents. 

Facebook: towards a connected intelligence network

In the West, we currently have disaggregated digital proxies across multiple platforms but none which combine social and economic intent across the three concentric circles of self, private and public. The economic and social activity WeChat conducts on a daily basis is almost on par, a testament to the robustness of a connected intelligence network that services both effectively. Of the total WeChat user base, we see over 800 million users engaging WeChat Pay every month resulting in 1.1 billion (2019) commercial transactions every day in the last quarter of 2019. The private circles features are equally successful, with 820 million users sending Red Packets in 2019. 

Facebook with WhatsApp and Instagram integration, represents the most pervasive network for social and economic intent in the West. However, in the absence of an integrated payment system, the limited ability of users to execute on economic intent, compromises Facebook’s ability to provide a complete digital proxy. 

Facebook’s recent moves to rebrand WhatsApp as part of the Facebook ecosystem, the attempted introduction of Libra payments and increased focus on merchant onboarding to WhatsApp business, signals a potential move in this direction. Given that Facebook houses the two largest messaging platforms in the world, Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger, it is best primed to emulate the WeChat model at scale, and with success. A Whatsapp integrated payment system tapping into 1.6 billion users across 180 countries could see significant knock-on effects for the growth of its own network – one that is already more pervasive and diverse in its reach than even WeChat. With its biggest market in India, Whatsapp is already garnering attention for commercial integrations in the country – its trajectory consolidating more clearly toward a connected intelligence network.


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