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I have seen the future of media, and it’s in China

Elena Scotti/FUSION

In China, 668 million people use the internet, overwhelmingly via smartphones. That’s twice the entire U.S. population. But thanks to the Great Firewall, they don’t have access to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat.

So, how do they get their news? The same way we will, in a few years’ time.

 

HANOVER, NIEDERSACHSEN - MARCH 15: A protester against internet censorship, wearing a Computer as a helmet, is seen outside Hanover Congress Centrum on March 15, 2015 in Hanover, Germany. German chancellor Angela Merkel and Deputy Prime Minister of People's Republic of China Ma Kai are scheduled to open the CeBIT computer trade later this evening. The CeBIT computer trade fair is the largest fair in the world, taking place from 16 to 20 March 2015 with China as this year' s partner country, underlining the Asian powerhouse economy' s growing role in the IT business.  (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)Getty Images

(Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

While U.S. news organizations are in thrall to social publishing, their Chinese counterparts don’t have the same distribution channel. But that hardly means that China still lives in some halcyon world where news publishers put their content on the homepage and wait for readers to come join their party.

Indeed, the relationship between Chinese news brands, consumers and mobile applications is way ahead of the U.S.

Quartz, for one, has begun to realize this with its new app, its latest attempt to build both brand recognition and user data. The new world that Quartz has created feels much like a messaging app, resulting in an experience similar to chatting with a news junkie friend. The app sends you a headline and immediately provides some built-in responses, like an emoji, or a phrase like “what else is there?”

In doing so, the app forces you to recognize you are interacting with Quartz and not some fungible news brand whose story can be mindlessly shared and consumed. As my colleague Felix Salmon wrote, messaging is the future of the news brand because it reestablishes the direct connection between publishers and readers.

Still, the Quartz app lacks one crucial thing: reach. Downloading an app and opening it is too much to ask, in a world where my attention is already split among many existing social networking and messaging apps. Which means that the logical next step for Quartz is to go native, getting on existing messaging apps and learning to become another person I talk to about current events, latest trends or viral videos.

That’s no pipe dream: In China, it’s everyday reality. Without the competition of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, a monstrosity called WeChat dominates the social media scene in the world’s largest smartphone market. WeChat incorporates some features of most western social networks, but it started out as a messaging app, and messaging is still at its heart.

According to the latest data released by the company, in September, 2015 about 570 million users logged into WeChat every day. In addition to personal accounts, individuals and companies can register for public accounts. They work a little bit like blogs which live in the app and are embedded in the messaging experience. Updates from the public accounts you subscribe to could appear right below the message from your mom and above a group chat with your high school friends.

These accounts update once a day, often at fixed times during the day to cultivate reading habits. But you can also interact with the publisher multiple times throughout the day. Once you subscribe to the account, the app allows you to leave a voice memo for the owner, send an emoji or a message, just like how you chat with your friends. The owner can update once a day to all the subscribers but can selectively respond to your messages or send out a voice memo to all subscribers at once. The experience feels much more intimate than the comment section of a website or a blog. It’s a bit like having a private messaging thread with the writer you like.

BEIJING, CHINA - JANUARY : (CHINA MAINLAND OUT)Wechat's first AD appears in circle of friends on 26th January, 2015 in Beijing, China.(Photo by TPG/Getty Images)

This system has given rise to numerous successful “we-media” brands which have hundreds of thousands of engaged readers and annual revenue in the millions, mostly from native advertising. Some of the people behind these we-media came from long-standing news brands and end up eclipsing their former employers. A July report from WeChat shows that “we-media” accounts have a greater share of subscribers than verified accounts run by media companies.

One good example is a WeChat account called “Serious Gossip.” The creator, Zhang Ziyan, was an entertainment reporter at VISTA magazine, one of the largest news and lifestyle magazine in the country. She started writing about celebrities and movies on WeChat with a very distinct voice, pointing out sexism and corruption. The account gained about 200,000 followers within one year, according to Tencent. Another example is “Miss_shopping_li”, a lifestyle and fashion account started by Fang Yimin, a veteran reporter at a metro paper. Her side project became so successful that she decided to quit her job and hire assistants to develop it full-time.

The most successful “we media” still tend to be about lifestyle, celebrities, and tech news, partly because writing about politics is still the business of state-run media in China. But the deeper point is that these former reporters and editors at traditional news organizations taught their employers an important lesson about engagement and brand development.

In China, the individual, rather than some brand, is indubitably at the heart of social and mobile communication. Traditional media tends to elide the ‘person’ behind the news, while “we media” is nothing without individual voices and personalities.

Some Chinese publishers are picking this up quickly, encouraging their beat reporters to start company-sponsored public accounts in their own voice, name and personality. These tend to do much better than official WeChat accounts which tend to simply transfer content from their website to WeChat.

By now, every news brand knows to find you where you already go to hang out with your friends. They get there and start talking incessantly, result in your social media feed being flooded with nonstop updates of similar content.

So, the ecosystem of “we-media” is not “news like you’ve never seen it”, nor is it just “texting you the news.” Rather, it could point to a future norm for news consumption in the age of information overload. We-media consumers generally tune in to only a couple of publishers, who must carefully time and choose what they want to say in order to stay at the party. The future of publishing is to become one of those publishers.