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Can China's messaging giant deal with a little competition? 
September 21, 2018
A conversational newsletter by
In a Cinderella story that Bloomberg is calling “David vs. Goliath — with emojis,” a new chat app is shaking up the Chinese messaging world.

Bullet reached 5 million users only two weeks after it debuted in August, temporarily bumping messaging giant WeChat from its perch in China's App Store.

Although it won’t be speeding past WeChat — which surpassed 1 billion users this year — anytime soon, Bullet’s impressive trajectory suggests Chinese consumers are thirsty for more messaging freedom. 
 

Kidnapped for too long

Facebook Messenger (1.3 billion users) is the messaging app of choice in North America, while WhatsApp (1.5 billion users) dominates much of the rest of the world. But both are among the many tech platforms censored by the Chinese government.

The Great Firewall has enabled WeChat to dominate not only messaging but social networking, electronic payments, ride-hailing, food delivery and other key aspects of modern Chinese life.

As one Beijing student expresses in the Bloomberg story, Bullet offers Chinese citizens a long-sought alternative:
« A lot of my friends and I feel we’ve been kidnapped by WeChat for too long.  
»

Voice of a generation 🙊

Bullet’s features are nowhere near as comprehensive as WeChat’s, but that’s sort of the point. As its name suggests, Bullet prioritizes speed — and its designers seem laser-focused on serving the unique messaging habits of Chinese consumers.

Unlike in the West, many people in China communicate by sending short voice messages back and forth, rather than text. WeChat popularized voice messaging in 2012 but its features in this area have fallen behind even international rivals like WhatsApp.

Bullet boasts a powerful voice recognition feature that instantly transcribes voice into text and sends it along with the audio message. As Fortune points out, this provides “a visible record of the conversation” — combining the intimacy of voice with the convenience and persistence of messaging.
 

Don’t call it a WeChat killer 😇

Despite concerns about privacy and porn on the platform (too little of the former, too much of the latter), Bullet has attracted a $90 million valuation and $22 million in funding from high-profile investors, including Chinese smartphone manufacturer Smartisan.

Smartisan’s founder, Luo Yonghao, is known for Steve Jobs-esque product announcements and public stunts like smashing refrigerators to protest poor design.

Some credit the buzz around Bullet to Luo’s cult of personality, though Luo has been quick to play down the company’s ambitions:
 
« We are not challenging WeChat. We are creating a niche product for people who care about the efficiency of communication
»
For the past few years, WeChat has been held up as Exhibit A for the inevitable rise of conversational commerce in the west. A little competition at home may be a good thing — not just for WeChat, but for the future of messaging on a global scale. 

Messaging is the new social media

As we noted in June, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released a report this summer looking at news consumption habits around the world.

It found that more people today are getting their news from messaging apps than from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

This month Reuters unveiled a new study, conducted by Kantar Media, that takes a more qualitative look at how people in the U.S., U.K., Brazil and Germany feel about these different communication channels.

The people had strong feelings. 
 

The mask comes off 🎭

The study looked at people's perceptions of social media compared to private chat, which participants saw as more, well, private, more relevant, more secure and more personal.

Messaging was also touted for feeling more authentic. Here’s how one U.K. woman put it:
« The whole thing about social media is [it’s] a bit of a mask. So when I’m in my messaging groups with my friends the mask comes off and I feel like I can truly be myself.
»

Uncool uncles and faithful best friends 🤓

In one of the most colorful parts of the study, researchers asked participants to compare different messaging channels using word associations.

Facebook Messenger was dinged with some pretty unflattering terms, perhaps due to its close ties to the mothership: “Facebook’s little sister/brother,” “wannabe,” “clingy,” “needy,” “irritating,” “inferior,” and “boring old lady.”

WhatsApp fared much better, with descriptions like: “best friend,” “sociable”, “fun,” “straightforward,” “honest,” “reliable,” “faithful,” “discrete,” “nimble,” “agile,” “dynamic,” and “current.”

The irony, as Harvard’s Nieman Lab points out, is not just that Facebook owns both platforms, but that participants said they’re still finding much of the news they're discussing on messaging apps via Facebook itself. 

Messaging may be the new media darling, but as one U.S. participant put it:
« Facebook is still king. 
»
👋  Have a wonderful weekend. You can send us your feedback, story ideas and messaging word associations by responding to this email. 

Dan Levy
Editorial Director
@danjl
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