From pen friends to WeChat moments: Social network transforms China

By Wu Jin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, July 27, 2019
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Hosts of the signing ceremony of a joint venture by Tencent and MNC Group's subsidiary company Global Mediacom introduce Tencent's product WeChat, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 28, 2013. [Photo/Xinhua]

In the most famous verse, "Nostalgia" by the celebrated poet Yu Guangzhong (1928-2017), he epitomized stamps as symbolically bridging the distance between himself and his mother from whom he had long been separated.

Handwritten letters, no matter whether long epistles or a few scribbled words, solemn or relaxing, melancholic or funny, played a dominant role in connecting hearts and minds of those geographically set apart, thanks to the modern postal service institutionalized in Britain when Rowland Hill created his famed "Penny Post" in 1844.

However, today, overwhelmed by cutting-edge communication technologies, extending from e-mails to individualized social media platforms, the old-fashioned correspondence mode of letter writing is disappearing in an irrevocable trend from which China is no exception.

Over the past 70 years since the founding of the People's Republic of China, the country has undergone a dramatic transformation in the way people connect with each other.

Mona Zhang, a 32-year-old Hebei native and the PhD from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, recalled that she made some pen friends when she was in her primary school.

She says: "I found some pen friends after joining Bertelsmann's reading club when I was a pupil. From then on, for quite a time, I spent my pocket money lavishly at the stationery stores for colorful paper and fluorescent pens to design the layouts of my letters with my greatest efforts and utmost intelligence."

However, when she reached senior high school, her parents revoked her Bertelsmann's membership and asked her to avoid any distractions in preparing for the university entrance exam.

Yet, it was at this moment that Bertelsmann closed most of its brick-and-mortar stores in China which caused Zhang to lose her pen friends.

Yet, if a door closes, a window may open. At the tail-end of time in senior high school, two of Zhang's bosom friends left to go to university in Changchun of Jilin province and Beijing respectively. To maintain their friendship, they called each other regularly using a 10-yuan IC card giving them up to 200 minutes of phone time.

"Realizing we wouldn't stop talking until the money on the card ran out, I would buy soft drinks, sunflower seeds and chips to prepare for each call," she remembers.

As Zhang began her junior year in university, social media like and QQ video emerged. However, they later proved transient after the rise of WeChat, a program from which users are able to start instant chat sessions through texts, voice or videos and share their pictures and stories on the platform called "Moments". This is the communications mode that still prevails.

According to Tencent Holdings, a high-tech parental monolith of WeChat, the combined monthly active users (MAU) of QQ and WeChat (two of its major social media platforms) hit 1.1 billion in the first quarter of 2019, up 6.9% year-over-year. This accounts for more than 14% of the world's entire population and 46% of the Facebook's global MAU of approximately 2.38 billion.

Founded just before the turn of the century, when Tencent launched its first instant-message service platform - QQ - the company has now grown into a full-fledged listed company with its businesses covering social media network, mobile payments and online gaming.

Booming social media has resulted in the obsolescence of many old communication models, such as handwritten letters, greeting cards, telegrams, reverse charge and direct dial phone calls, IC telephones, beepers (pagers), and texting of instant messages using traditional cell phones.

At the same time, Internet-based social media, such as, chatroom, instant communication messenger ICQ, happy virtual farm and Weibo (developed by and Tencent respectively and equivalent to Facebook), underwent life-and-death competition ahead of the advent of WeChat.

Many of them died out and only a few like Weibo have survived even though with much less influence than their heyday.

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