Last November Facebook quietly unveiled a new app called Lasso that allows users to record 15-second videos of themselves dancing and lip-synching.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like TikTok, the international version of China’s smash hit Douyin, which is owned by Bytedance?
Plenty of industry insiders made the comparison, with TechCrunch describing Lasso as a “knock-off” of China’s short-form video sensation. SlashGear also reckoned that Facebook’s app was “obviously designed to offer the same functionality as TikTok”, while The Verge talked about “the aging social media platform” trying to win over teens.
If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, Mark Zuckerberg has been laying it on even thicker vis-a-vis Chinese social media this month, with an announcement that Facebook plans to transform itself into an all-purpose messaging service. Immediately commentators said the move was intended to mimic Tencent’s WeChat, China’s dominant social media network.
The new Facebook is “in effect… a WeChat-like app, but outside of China,” proclaimed Hong Kong Economic Journal.
Zuckerberg’s new mission comes at a time when the US social media giant is struggling with a backlash against the platform’s treatment of personal data, including infractions that allowed access to users’ information without their knowledge or consent.
Recognising that the political mood is turning against it, the company is trying to pivot back towards a model that allows smaller groups to communicate in a more private fashion, forged around its messaging services Facebook Messenger, Instagram Messenger and WhatsApp.
Facebook will “build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services,” Zuckerberg promised in a post.
Facebook’s founder has expressed his admiration for WeChat in the past and he admitted earlier this month that he regrets not doing more to emulate it. “If only I’d listened to your advice four years ago,” he said in a response to Jessica Lessin, founder of The Information, who had highlighted an article she authored telling Facebook to learn more from Tencent’s platform.
In addition to letting its users send messages and share news, WeChat allows them to order food from restaurants, book taxis, get directions, check movie schedules and buy a wider range of goods and services from its e-commerce and O2O (online-to-offline) functions.
It even has its own app store called WeChat Mini Programs that allows third-party developers to add their own apps to the platform.
The large majority of people with smartphones in China would struggle to get through the day without using WeChat repeatedly and Zuckerberg aspires to create that same level of dependence with his overhaul of Facebook.
But replicating WeChat’s reach won’t be straightforward, says TMTPost, adding that it is not the first time that Facebook has tried to copy the WeChat model.
“Since 2014, Facebook Messenger has continually been ‘taking cues’ from WeChat, expanding its services into payments, cross-border remittances, video games and even Uber taxi service. However, there have been no obvious commercial results,” the news portal claims.
National Business Daily explains that differences in business model will make it particularly difficult for the US social media giant to repeat WeChat’s success.
For a start, Zuckerberg will have to change how Facebook makes most of its money. It relies overwhelmingly on advertising for income ($16.6 billion in the last quarter of 2018, or more than 98% of its sales) but WeChat is much more diversified in its revenue streams, making money from e-commerce and video games, and taking commissions on the sale of other goods and services.
That allows it to limit advertising across its platforms and lessen the disruption to the user experience.
TMTPost agrees that the transition will be challenging. “The cornerstone of Facebook’s business model is the advertising business that exploits users’ data. Once it turns to private messaging, how will Facebook find more revenue streams to reduce its dependence on advertising?” it asked.
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