The WeChat Official Account once reshaped the media landscape, but it has lost its shine with the rise of algorithm driven video apps.
Photo from CFP
By XIAO Fang
Exactly ten years after WeChat Official Accounts went live, I finally started my own. It took me two months of hard labor to produce three articles. I was thrilled when they were reposted by some of the biggest tech bloggers. In the end, each was read hundreds of thousands of times across the internet, and I picked up a thousand followers, including my mom and her friends.
The WeChat Official Account is the blog that single-handedly changed the media landscape. It’s not just a publishing platform where anyone can share anything they write. Being on WeChat also means their posts can achieve previously unimaginable virality. National newspapers competed for attention with amateur writers on an almost level playing field. From about 2014 until 2018, it was simply impossible to keep track of new blogs opened by friends and colleagues. A few actually went on to become valuable media brands. If they could gain millions of followers back then, why can’t I now?
In answer to my question, a friend in tech told me that only about one in a hundred articles gets clicked these days, even on the biggest blogs. Five years ago, the click rate for an average blog was at least 7 percent. In other words, people don’t read on WeChat anymore.
So where are they reading these days? The short answer is they’re not. They’re watching videos. The same people who used to click “I tried the keto diet for a month and this is what happened” or “Anna Wintour’s hairdresser tells it all” on WeChat are now on Douyin or Kuaishou, watching 60-second cooking videos and make-up tutorials.
Aggregate time spent on WeChat as a percentage of total screen time has been falling since 2017. WeChat has built a short-video function that looks largely the same as Douyin and Kuaishou but no one cares. Last year, for the first time, people spent more time on short video apps than they did on WeChat.
As a WeChat blogger myself, I have to admit that it’s been a while since I last checked the blogs I follow. I still prefer text to videos, but the articles I read these days are almost all from friends’ reposts. At least they don’t share clickbait or ads.
Ads - sponsored content dressed as journalism - are the undoing of WeChat Official Account. Everyone knows how it feels to spend five minutes reading “How e-commerce has been reshaping the lives of walnut growers” that in the end turns out to be a tribute to Alibaba. In some cases, the tones are even subtler, aiming to change readers’ minds over a series of articles. It’s not uncommon for PR firms or fan groups to pay for series that gossip about celebs.
Whether to disclose a sponsorship or not is purely the choice of individual bloggers, and the incentive not to disclose is simply too great. With my blog gaining followers, my friends are already jokingly about which brand I should work with and how much I can be paid. Many of them had or are still running blogs that started as a hobby and gradually morphed into a side gig. Even large, reputable media outlets tuck sponsored pieces into their daily digest.
WeChat Official Account has given individuals an almost equal say as large newspapers and thus equal access to ad money, but individual bloggers are not bound by the same professional standards as large outlets. Thus the downfall. Although great articles still pop up from time to time– and get shared and read by millions of people – the quality of content on WeChat has deteriorated beyond a tipping point that people simply stopped caring.
I should be thankful, that even a thousand people found me through their friends’ reposts. This wouldn’t have been possible on platforms where algorithms decide what users are shown, based on clicks and keywords. Content mills, a byproduct of WeChat Official Account, were taken to the next level.
I have met college graduates who get paid about their local average income to churn out clickbait. Their job is simply to produce as many articles in as little time as possible. A common method is to copy a reasonably popular article, rewrite a few sentences, and attach a different but similar headline. That’s why articles on Baidu Blog and ByteDance’s Toutiao are unreadable.
Ten years ago, WeChat was an exchange of witty essays and sharp commentaries. So were a few other platforms, such as Zhihu and Qingmang, in their early days. They both started with the vision of a haven for thinkers and readers, but have gone on different paths since. Zhihu gained 75 million monthly users and went public, only at the cost of becoming yet another marketplace for sponsored content. Qingmang insisted on publishing serious content only. It shut down last year.
Bilibili and Kuaishou, standard bearers of virality, also took pride in their community and culture when they were smaller. But more often than not, visions bow to the might of algorithms, or the mundane need to please investors and pay employees.
I had an epiphany the other day when another friend lamented the lack of good writing on the internet as if it was an art whose demise is worth lamenting over. But then I realized that writing is just a job, like driving a taxi or delivering food, and that a writer is only a cog in a machine powered by the potent fuel called web traffic. Content creators shouldn’t take themselves too seriously, and neither should I.