The rise of WeChat: China’s favorite social network

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After just 7 years, WeChat has achieved a staggering level of success. Now with over 1 billion monthly active users, the platform continues to expand its influence around the world. Despite a few hiccups along the way, WeChat has achieved a staggering level of dominance during its 7 years as a platform, particularly in China, where it is one of the most popular social networking apps. But how did WeChat achieve dominance in such a short period of time? We’ve taken a closer look at the history of the platform.


Developed in a Tencent office in China, WeChat was built over the course of three months before being debuted in January 2011. As Tencent’s first mobile-only social app, it was a huge leap forward for the company, who had previously focussed on web-based software. The app was originally called Weixin in Chinese but had not yet been given an English name. WeChat failed to draw much attention when it was initially launched, despite being suitable for any device. Tencent wanted to break down the barriers that existed between users of different devices, for example, iPhone users and Blackberry users, who were unable to use the internet to communicate together, and could only communicate via SMS. Despite this, WeChat was lost in the mix as Kik and Whatsapp were growing exponentially. In August 2011, WeChat introduced functionality for sending videos, a huge turning point for the platform, bringing it up to date with competitors. At the same time, a feature was also introduced to find nearby users, which caused huge controversy for WeChat down the line, but initially proved a popular function.

2012 – WeChat’s rise to power

In March 2012, WeChat hit a huge milestone, reaching a staggering 100 million registered users, just 14 months after launching. A month later, Weixin was finally given an English name, WeChat, as the network geared up to go global. That same month, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Portuguese languages were introduced, another signal that WeChat had global ambitions.

In June, WeChat was launched in India, with a high-cost advertising campaign using celebrities to increase interest in the platform. In order to try and connect with the audience they used Bollywood in some of their advertising. Although WeChat orchestrated a great campaign with high ambitions, their hopes fell flat, as Indian social media users were already focussed on Facebook and Whatsapp, meaning that they seemingly had no need for WeChat and its functions. A month later, voice and video calls were added to the app’s functionality, showing that despite its failings in India, WeChat had no intention of slowing down.

WeChat also opened up the platform to brand accounts that were able to connect with users using QR codes. The QR code, once scanned, could connect the user with that brand on the platform, taking only a matter of seconds. After this, celebrities began setting up public accounts in order to expand their influence in China. Later that year, WeChat synced up with Facebook and Twitter to allow users to find friends from other social networks to connect with in the app. Soon, the platform hit 200 million users, doubling its audience in six months.

2012 – cracks began to show

As the popularity of the platform increased, the media were eager to report on negative experiences people had encountered using the app. Negative stories began to make national news in China, including a woman who was reportedly murdered by a man who was stalking her using the location feature. Just months later, WeChat hit national news again when it emerged that a predator had used the location filter to ‘groom’ 160 boys under the age of 13.


In January 2013, WeChat hit a staggering 300 million users, shortly after its second birthday. However, the platform was once again the focus of negative stories. It emerged that the app had been censoring users worldwide when they wrote politically sensitive phrases. Naturally, this caused a huge backlash worldwide. In February, however, WeChat’s influence appeared to be on the up, with huge influencers such as Selena Gomez, Paris Hilton and the Backstreet Boys all setting up accounts in order to expand their influence in China and connect with their Chinese fans. After more failed attempts to expand into further territories (Indonesia and Thailand), WeChat finally revealed its number of active users. Falling behind Whatsapp, WeChat revealed it had 190 million monthly active users, falling short of Whatsapp’s 200 million. While WeChat continued to dominate China, Whatsapp saw major victories around the world.

In August, WeChat launched its own in-app games, adding another dimension to the platform. As well as this, WeChat launched mobile payments, allowing users to pay using their phone without the need for cash. This was a huge step forward for the app, and this became one of its most popular features. In September, WeChat vending machines were also introduced, situated in Beijing’s subway stations. By the end of the year, selling through WeChat became commonplace, and Xiaomi proved this by selling 150,000 phones in under 10 minutes on the platform during a flash-sale.


Kicking off 2014 in style, the app then launched a partnership with Didi Dache, enabling users to hail a taxi and pay for it within the app, with no need for a cash payment. In May, WeChat also granted brands the ability to open up a store within the platform, regardless of the size of the brands. By June, SMS use was almost non-existent in China, and the average citizen was sending on average only one SMS per day, signifying WeChat’s unbelievable influence. This coincided with the launch of cash transfers, allowing users to send money to their friends. It also became commonplace for startups to launch a presence within WeChat rather than setting up their own app.


2015 proved a huge turning point for the platform, in January it began offering brands the chance to pay for advertising, BMW and Coca-Cola were among the first to utilize the feature. However, WeChat was soon hitting the national news again in China over its decision to block Uber’s brand account. This was seen as a malicious move, with WeChat’s social dominance proving hugely influential over the Chinese population. The move was seen as tactical, with WeChat having invested in Uber’s main competitor Didi the previous year. Blocking Uber’s account had a huge impact on their visibility in China. Due to the media regulation in China, WeChat is forced to censor political material. A report conducted by Citizen Lab unearthed the extent of this censorship, revealing that 1.6% of posts by brand accounts were removed after being published. Citizen Lab also discovered that censorship bots were blocking some posts before they were even published.


In order to tap into the tourist market, WeChat implemented in-store payments in busy tourist locations around China. Payments were able to be made via QR codes at cash registers, an extremely hassle-free option for payment. Another new feature launched early 2016 enabled users to tip their favorite bloggers. In April, WeChat began a major crackdown on the content shared through the platform. Fake news, clickbait headlines, content viewed as ‘vulgar’, and posts asking for shares were all completely banned. That same month, WeChat launched an office chat app, ‘WeChat Enterprise’, set up specifically for workplace communication.


WeChat’s major move in 2017 was the introduction of apps within the main app, requiring no app store download and only functional within the WeChat app. Among the first to set up mini programmes were McDonalds and Starbucks, who allowed users to order food inside the WeChat app. By April, WeChat had accumulated 900 million monthly users, and 45% of those users were using the app to pay for items in stores with the cashless payment feature. In November, it was revealed that 38 billion messages were being sent through WeChat every single day. User numbers had reached 980 million per month, and the valuation of the platform reached $500 billion, on par with Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft.


Starting off 2018 in rather negative style WeChat was accused of accessing chat history between users. The platform however, strongly refuted these claims, stating that no chats have been stored on WeChat itself, only on the individual user’s phone or computer. The app also continues to be controversial due to filtering out political or sensitive messages, a practice which remains unpopular.

WeChat is undoubtedly one of the most influential platforms in the world, and is vital for artists who want to connect with the Chinese market. With such a high population in China, as well as an exponentially growing interest in the electronic music industry, it is vital for artists to be visible on WeChat in order to tap into this source of revenue. Major electronic music festivals are already expanding to countries across Asia, marking a significant interest in the genre. Although WeChat has struggled to build influence outside of China, building a presence is vital for securing a loyal fanbase in the country.