Time to get serious about chat apps

“For users, why worry of a more feudal Internet when you can send amazing stickers to select groups of friends? For publishers, you get a direct connection with an untapped audience, with your updates dinging on their phones.”

WeChat, WhatsApp, Line, and their brethren never played a big role in my daily life until I moved to Asia earlier this year. The extent to which they became indispensable, because communication happens almost exclusively inside their ecosystems, exposed a missed opportunity for Western news organizations. But I expect that to change. 2016 is the year we’ll see more media companies get serious about chat apps.

elise-huChat apps have reached stunning scale across the world — 650 million active monthly unique users on WeChat, and at least that many on WhatsApp. For the many publishers who now capitalize on social sharing, these platforms do more than facilitate chat; they provide a captive audience for updates, one-to-one communication, and payments. (On WeChat, users can not just send money, but book doctor’s appointments, hail cabs, and more.) The engagement possibilities are rife for exploration, and chat apps have young, growing user bases that aren’t being met by Western news sources.

BuzzFeed and BBC are among the players already present on these platforms, but we’re past time far more news publishers — some with the world’s leading data, interactive, and visual news offerings — to find a place in chat apps, too. There’s a compelling reason to be there just for the types of audiences they reach (young, global and growing), but perhaps even more importantly, for the insight these apps can offer about our communications present and future. Even if WeChat, Line, or KakaoTalk never take hold in the United States, experimentation and learning from just trying stuff on chat apps will prepare news organizations for the similar players that will. (Facebook has already signaled it’s following WeChat and Kakao’s lead, by offering Uber hailing inside its Messenger app. What features will follow?)

I realize these are closed networks. Part of WeChat’s popularity is a consequence of China’s great firewall, since it blocks social media most commonly used in the West. Like every other user of WeChat, I trade away any notion of privacy in the deal I make for speed and ease of communication. So it is with KakaoTalk, the messenger with 93 percent penetration rate among smartphone users in South Korea. It’s no secret it turns over private user data to the government.

At the same time, these closed networks also feel intimate. For users, why worry of a more feudal Internet when you can send amazing stickers to select groups of friends? For publishers, you get a direct connection with an untapped audience, with your updates dinging on their phones. It’s also an opportunity to challenge the very order you’d burrow into: Principle-driven news organizations with stories calling out governments, corporations and other institutions of power ought to help inform the huge numbers of readers and viewers inside these walled gardens.

Since we’re in this business partly because we believe news and information are vital, Western media will miss out if we aren’t exploring this mobile chat terrain, reaching the billion-plus on chat apps with information needs that deserve to be met. And the possibilities for us to learn from being there may be as abundant as the audiences.

Elise Hu is a NPR international correspondent based in Seoul.

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