Editor’s Note: At Mailman, we have the privilege of welcoming some of the best interns to work with us from time to time. In this series, we listen in on how some of our interns go about making sense of China, social media, and more. In this piece, Jordan takes a look at the popular (and sometimes dangerous) WeChat Walkie Talkie feature.
When I arrived in China the first item on my agenda was to create an account on WeChat. Since I didn’t have a Chinese SIM card, this was my sole means of communication with my family back home, my new friends here in China, and all the important contacts in my school exchange program. I immediately began to use it in the same manner I used iMessage or SMS back in the US.
Soon I noticed a trend within the local WeChat users. Instead of typing out their messages in text format they used the application to send short voice messages back and forth. Curious, I asked my Chinese friend why she and her contacts preferred this method of communication.
She answered: “It’s so much easier!” as though it should have been obvious to me. I still didn’t understand. Text messages had virtually replaced phone calls in my friend group back home, which had to mean they were the best way to communicate right?
She elaborated, telling me all the reasons voice messages are superior to old fashioned texting:
Holding down one button and saying a quick thought takes less time and effort than typing a grammatically correct message. This may not seem like a difficult task, but for someone who is ill, tired, or not at their full mental capacity it can mean the difference between communicating and a jumble of nonsensical words.
Texting has led to a loss of social interaction in some communities. By allowing WeChat members to hear each other’s voices they’ve created a form of communication that maintains the non-immediacy of texting without the loss of interaction. This helps express emotions more easily and prevent miscommunications. Additionally it provides verification that the messages sent from your account are in fact you and not a hacker.
When I asked my friend how WeChat voice messages were different from calling she pointed out the difference in cost. WeChat doesn’t cost any money to download and uses WiFi whenever available to limit data usage. This allows users to buy cheaper mobile plans that include data but not calling capabilities.
While all these points have convinced my friends and me to increasingly use voice messages, we do not use it to the same extent as the locals. There is a certain amount of privacy that is lost with voice messages. The app plays messages through the speakerphone instead of the internal speaker used when making phone calls. This had led to repeated text responses of, “I can’t listen right now” and “Can you just type it?” that reverse the time saving efforts of voice messages.
Another issue that may arise from using voice messages is a lack of deniability. There are undoubtedly times when you will send an embarrassing message to the wrong person (It happens to everyone, don’t worry). When this happens to me I analyze my next possible course of action:
Pretend the message was for them.
Admit they weren’t supposed to see the message.
Deny everything by blaming it on a friend who stole your phone.
While the recipient may not believe it if you deny, by having your voice in the message you lose the option of deniability entirely.
Of course, simply plugging in a pair of headphones and double-checking the recipient box can solve this. However, for those who tend to unknowingly click on the wrong name or attempt to subtly contact their friends without nearby persons noticing or hearing the message, it is best to stick with the traditional texting format.