Hi, It's Mom: Why Voice Messages Aren't Going Away -- China Circuit

By Li Yuan Features Dow Jones Newswires

Whenever Wang Ziwan receives a series of voice messages on the WeChat messaging app from her mother, the 32-year-old chef-in-training looks at them and sighs. She dreads having to listen to them one by one, sometimes over a dozen in total, and having to listen again if she misses something. "I really don't want to open them," she says. "But what can I do? She's my mom."

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Her mother--Song Zhihong, a 58-year-old retiree in Shanghai--has taken her daughter's complaints on board, mostly. She is typing more messages on WeChat, the hugely popular social-messaging platform developed by Tencent Holdings Ltd. But texting seems cold, she says, and reading text on a phone screen is difficult for people her age. Ms. Song still uses voice messages when communicating with her old schoolmates.

Ms. Wang says she has seen how her mom interacts with those friends on WeChat. "They use their phones like walkie-talkies," she says.

Voice messaging--those push-to-talk notes that last no more than 60 seconds--was an early feature that helped WeChat gain traction after its launch in early 2011. It can feel more personal than text messaging. It is easier for people who fumble with smartphone keypads. A few years ago, speaking to smartphones was as fashionable as toting an iPhone in its early days.

Now, voice messaging is seen as the province of seniors, plus a few on-the-go groups such as salespeople and drivers. When I asked my followers on the Twitter-like social-media platform Weibo whether they use WeChat voice messages, the majority of the nearly 200 who responded said they disliked them and described heavy users as selfish, uneducated and old.

With nine out of 10 Chinese internet users on WeChat and with half of them spending over 90 minutes a day on the app to chat, read, work and shop, WeChat is where China's national conversation takes place. For many Chinese, voice messages are seen as an intrusion, adding to information overload. Some don't want to receive any at all.

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"I reject WeChat voice message because it conveniences the sender but burdens the receiver," says Liu Zhaojian, an intellectual-property consultant in the commercial hub of Guangzhou. He is driven nuts by his sister, a 30-year-old bank clerk in the smaller southern city of Huizhou, who likes sending him voice messages because it feels more intimate.

The divergent attitudes toward voice messaging reveals another fault line in China's complex digital divide that encompasses rural versus urban, young versus old, rich versus poor and well educated versus less educated. Those different socioeconomic backgrounds congregate and clash on WeChat, in effect trying to hash out new social norms.

Some users and industry observers have urged WeChat to disable the feature or give users more say in who can send them voice messages.

Tencent didn't respond directly when asked about voice-messaging complaints other than to say that WeChat has a vast number of users and the company aims to provide services to cater to their diverse needs.

Voice commands and video are seen as critical to bringing the mobile internet to the world's next billion users, many of them poorer and less educated. On average, 16% of WeChat messages sent in 2016 were via voice, compared with about 1% for WhatsApp users in 2014, according to internet statistics firm Statista.

While China's younger, better-educated users in big cities have shaped online products and services for the past two decades, internet companies are now paying attention to those outside that demographic.

Though people age 39 and below make up 72% of China's 751 million internet users, only cohorts 40 and over registered any growth in users in the first half of 2017, according to the government's China Internet Network Information Center. Some 27% of Chinese online live in rural areas, 12% have a college or higher degree and 92% earn monthly salaries of 8,000 yuan ($1,200) or lower, according to the report.

Those online demographics are helping to drive the popularity of mobile apps such as Kwai, the social-networking video app that captures what life is like outside China's biggest cities, and news aggregating app Jinri Toutiao, whose algorithm led it to a similar user base.

WeChat's 2016 user report shows that while people over 55 made up only 1% of the platform's user base, one out of five messages they sent were voice, compared with one in 10 for users under 21.

Tencent has been courting seniors.The company produces a video package showing seniors how to use WeChat. For an annual event last December, WeChat produced a video showing how the app is changing seniors' lifestyle, including the convenience of voice messaging and making video calls.

Like it or not, people are going to need to learn to live with voice messages--and the time it takes to deal with them.

While users take nine seconds on average to read 100 characters, they need 22 seconds to listen to the same 100 characters, excluding pauses, says Liu Xingliang, head of research at Beijing-based analytics firm Data Center of the China Internet.

"Only when you listen to WeChat voice messages will you find out how long a minute is," Mr. Liu says.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 07, 2017 06:29 ET (10:29 GMT)