A passenger scans a QR code to get information from the official WeChat account of a train service at Wuhan Railway Station in Hubei Province on January 11, 2016 (XINHUA)
Chen Xiao belongs to a community that has had a new word invented just for them. He is a phubber, one of a rising class of smartphone addicts who remain immersed in their phones or tablets, oblivious to everyone and everything around them. The community is especially discernible on the subway, where they are seen glued to their gadgets, continuing to pore over them even when exiting the system and walking to their destinations.
Every day, while commuting to work, Chen reads news feeds from ThePaper.cn, a new media portal on current affairs, accessing it via its official account on WeChat, the popular instant messaging and calling app that has diversified its functions since its launch.
"Reading this is my morning routine," Chen said. "It's a great way to keep up with what's going on in China and the rest of the world and also to kill time."
According to a report released by Tencent Group Holdings, the developer of WeChat, there were 768 million active WeChat users by December 2016. That is more than double the population of the United States.
WeChat has become a daily necessity with its medley of functions, ranging from sharing posts and playing games to making e-payments. More and more companies are latching on to it, creating official WeChat accounts where surfers can register to receive regular news feeds as well as information on products and services such as hospital pre-registrations, visa renewals or credit card services.
In the beginning, companies, government organizations and departments, and media and other organizations were the main body of WeChat content providers. But now more and more ordinary individuals or groups are taking to the platform to express themselves and interact with friends, acquaintances or even random strangers.
A screenshot of an image created by Liu Di on her WeChat account, using a trash can photograph
Liu Di, a 29-year-old web designer in Beijing, uses WeChat to share her life, thoughts and talents with others. She posts little diary-like scribbles and drawings that tweak mundane things, like a piece of ginger or a garbage can, to make them look magical.
"My purpose is to illustrate the beautiful world I see for my followers and encourage them to find their own happiness in even trivial things," Liu said. "Sharing a positive attitude, which
is never wrong." Created in July 2015, Liu's account has more than 1,500 subscribers, who frequently interact with her by sending her their photos, comments and doodles. Liu enjoys this kind of attention and is motivated to post more to display her uniqueness.
Margaret, who is doing a PhD in applied economics, uses her WeChat account to patiently answer queries from people having trouble learning English. She has more than 30,000 subscribers and each comment she posts gets hundreds of likes on average.
"It is rewarding seeing people learn from your experience and lesson and become better versions of themselves," she said. "It is also a fountain of strength for me. Words of encouragement make me… more determined to face whatever life offers me in the future."
Reinvent or retire
According to iiMedia Research, a mobile Internet industry consultancy, WeChat official accounts had reached 12 million by October 2016, signifying a 46.2-percent increase over the previous year. However, the report also said just 60 percent of the accounts were regularly updated. Also, only 10 percent were continuously followed by their subscribers.
Does it indicate that "zombie accounts" and "zombie subscribers" are increasing and the WeChat official account platform, having reached its peak, is on a downward spiral?
Lu Benfu, a professor at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, believes that the WeChat official accounts will enter an integration stage rather than get eliminated. Compared with WeChat's heyday, the percentage of accounts with quality contents is decreasing, as it is no more an exciting novelty to Internet users. "It needs to find its position, as people are offered more options," Lu said.
While there are 695 million mobile Internet surfers in China, content providers are struggling to survive and stand out. So attempts are being made to come up with new sustainable options. Tencent confirmed in February that it is planning to introduce a technology which would enable public account operators and content providers to charge their readers.
It could help separate the wheat from the chaff. The owners of accounts with valuable contents would then stand to make money, while readers will get quality.
Some media service platforms have already given it a go. For instance, 36Kr.com, focusing on providing science and tech contents for general readers as well as Internet startups, is charging for some of its columns.
"Quality contents have worth," said Feng Dagang, CEO of 36Kr, in an interview with Gmw.com. "Paying for it is an inevitable trend."
It remains to be seen whether WeChat official accounts can make a successful transformation. In the era of new media, challenge equals opportunity.
"New media is developing fast. No one can predict its future," said Tang Xujun, Director of the Institute of Journalism and Communication Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "But one thing is for sure: wherever the reader goes, the media follows."
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org