WeChat and the integration of activism in everyday life

Berlin, 5-8 October, the Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, together with Thomas Poell and Zeng Guohua we presented our paper on WeChat.

The panel overview:


The panel engages with conceptual and methodological challenges within a specific area of ‘internet rules’, namely the space of mobile apps. Whereas the web was set out to function as a ‘generative’ and open technology facilitating the production of unanticipated services and applications, the growing popularity of social media platforms, and mobile apps is characterised by proprietary services that facilitate accessibility but obstruct transparency, tinkering, adjustment, and repurposing. This broader development from ‘generative’ technologies to ‘tethered’ devices and services has been referred to as ‘appliancization’ by Jonathan Zittrain (2008). In addition to Zittrain’s focus on the proliferation of proprietary technologies, we suggest that platform infrastructures create specific conditions for the emergence of app ecologies and that apps and platforms are mutually dependent on a technological and economic level.

From this perspective, the panel explores a number of novel methodologies for app studies. So far, methodological approaches for studying apps have focused on end-user interfaces and how users interpret app affordances (McVeigh-Schultz and Baym 2015), qualitative analyses of their political economies and the politics of location (Dyer-Witheford 2014; Wilken and Bayliss 2015), their social norms of use (Humphreys 2007) or their affective capacities (Matviyenko et al. 2015). The empirical investigation of apps and their ecologies currently faces multiple challenges: First, in contrast to most data collected from web sites and platforms, user activities can neither be simply observed or scraped from front-end interfaces nor easily be collected via APIs. In order to access app data, researchers may need to participate in using the app, which only affords a partial view (e.g. in the case of Tinder, Snapchat, and messaging apps) thereby opening up a number of ethical concerns. Second, method development has to respond to apps’ fast update cultures. Like other internet-enabled technologies, apps are considered as services rather than products and have frequent development cycles, including design and features changes, which do not only require researchers to constantly adjust their tools and approaches, but which also make it particularly difficult to reconstruct the history of an app or its features.

This panel responds to these methodological challenges by advancing methodological approaches that all share a common device or medium-specific perspective, departing from the specific features of each app to attend to its data ecologies, political economies, practices, or histories, whilst reflecting critically on the relations between method and medium. One contribution advances digital methods for app analysis by mapping larger platform ecosystems in which apps emerge and thrive. It explores how apps reinforce, alter, and interfere in the interpretation of social media platforms and their features. Engaging with Facebook’s mobile app and its political economy, the second paper attends to the difficulties of getting access to historical app information whilst tracing relations between the introduction of new features and the advancement of the platform’s business model. A different approach to writing a microhistory of apps is offered in the third paper on the Twitter’s retweet button. Bringing together historical and ethnographic insights, this paper offers a detailed narrative of the becoming of a platform feature at the intersection of technicity, use practices, third-party apps and platform politics. The fourth and final paper focuses on the WeChat app and draws on ethnographic methods to explore the affordances of entanglement when the only way to study an app is by joining and participating in it.

All four papers approach apps not as discrete technologies, but as being situated and subject to distributed accomplishments of technicity, economics, practices, data, third parties, and platform politics. They connect platform studies and app studies by drawing attention to their intricate relations, e.g. in the case of platforms offering apps, apps built on top of platforms, apps facilitating practices that inform platforms, and apps functioning as platforms. The papers outline relations between and gaps in app and platform studies, as the study of platforms has identified the relevance of data circulation and the involvement of third parties, but has not explicitly asked how apps capitalise on platforms and vice-versa, or how they reinvent and inscribe into each other. From the perspective of app studies, adding a focus on platforms allows researchers to map the ecologies in which app data circulates as well as the regulatory rules and conditions for their development. The panel thus advances the field of app studies by exploring novel methods for empirical app research which allows to attend to the technicity, political economy, history, and enactment of app ecologies.


Dyer-Witheford N (2014) App Worker. In: Miller PD and Matviyenko S (eds), The Imaginary App, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 127–142.

Humphreys L (2007) Mobile social networks and social practice: A case study of Dodgeball. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13(1): 341–360.

Matviyenko S, Ticineto Clough P and Galloway AR (2015) On Governance, Blackboxing, Measure, Body, Affect and Apps: A conversation with Patricia Ticineto Clough and Alexander R. Galloway. The Fibreculture Journal (25): 10–29.

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Wilken R and Bayliss P (2015) Locating Foursquare: The Political Economics of Mobile Social Software. In: Wilken R and Goggin G (eds), Locative Media, New York: Routledge, pp. 177–192.

Zittrain J (2009) The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It. New Haven: Yale University Press.




Chinese citizens use WeChat (known as WeiXin in China) for everything: from booking a show to making new friends, and from exchanging pornography to gossiping. The popular Chinese mobile text and voice messaging service, with its 650 million active users, has in a short time become an integral part of everyday life. Inevitably, the exchanges through the service also touch on contentious issues, such as freedom of speech, political and corporate corruption, and the rising levels of air pollution. This paper explores how WeChat is used for contentious communication, and how it, in turn, shapes this communication.

It specifically examines the practice of instant messaging on Beijing’s rampant air pollution problem. Especially during heavy smog days, Beijing’s citizens use WeChat to share and discuss air quality index statistics, pictures of smoggy skylines, and information regarding the temporary shutdown of schools because of bad air quality. When the highly discussed 2015 air pollution documentary Under the Dome was published online, WeChat was one of the prime platforms through which the documentary was circulated and discussed (Custer 2015).

These mobile-app-based instances of contentious communication are particularly interesting in the light of current research on social media and activism, which suggests that a more general integration of activism in everyday life is taking place (Poell, Kloet, & Zeng, 2014; Bennett & Segerberg 2012; Papacharissi & de Fatima Oliveira 2012; Valenzuela 2013). As social platforms are intensively used in personal exchanges about a wide variety of topics, activism and protest become part of daily online conversation. Furthermore, as these platforms enable immediate widespread content sharing, such daily chatter pervades and affects public communication at large. WeChat is an interesting example of this trend because it is a very popular mobile app, which is deeply integrated in daily practices. And, it is interesting because it is used for contentious communication in China, a country characterised by far-reaching state efforts to control online contention.

Data collection

As a mobile app that operates within a complex political and commercial environment, WeChat poses major methodological challenges for the study of online contention. WeChat’s business strategies and the Chinese state’s control efforts are deeply inscribed into the application’s architecture, which affects how content circulates on the platform and how it can be collected. The platform’s publicly available APIs are geared towards enabling data exchanges with a broad range of other online services, including major social media platforms such as Facebook and Tencent’s own QQ, as well as a rapidly growing number of apps that use WeChat’s payment system. Thus, WeChat’s APIs are geared towards integrating external apps into its platform, but are not set up to facilitate the collection of public user data for research purposes. A second limitation is that WeChat does not offer a search feature to find specific types of accounts or messages, like those concerned with air pollution. Instead, relevant public accounts and group chats are spread through online word-of-mouth. In the light of these challenges, we have chosen to adopt an ethnographic approach. The paper reflects on the limitations of this approach, which only provides a partial view of WeChat activity, as well as on the ethics of collecting public social media data for research purposes.

Building on a network of local experts, six popular WeChat group chats have been selected. These chats are each dominated by a specific group of Beijing inhabitants, including artists, bicycling enthusiasts, and environmentalists. In typical WeChat fashion, these users discuss a wide variety of topics, frequently touching on air pollution. To observe the interaction in these chats and collect relevant material, two researchers from our team have joined the six selected groups and have followed the group activity on a daily basis for a period of six months. Subsequently, all public chat messages (texts, photos, and videos) on the topic of air pollution have been examined and categorised through emergent coding. In addition, the research draws on 15 semi-structured interviews with active users from the selected groups.


The analysis of this material suggests that as contentious personal and public communication becomes inextricably entangled, the character of activist discourse fundamentally transforms. As other authors have already observed, this discourse is injected with humor, emotions, and gossip, and sex. And, it is thoroughly intermingled with popular culture and intimate personal concerns. Our case study shows how on heavy smog days, WeChat channels a steady stream of jokes, air-pollution-mask selfies, before-and-after pictures, and funny photoshopped images. At the same time, the examined group chats are spaces where users express their anxiety about rising pollution levels.

The consequences of this intermingling of personal and public communication for the dynamic of popular contestation in the Chinese context are highly ambiguous. On the one hand, WeChat, with its billions of daily messages that circulate in sudden and unpredictable ways, constitutes a potentially explosive and hard to control element in Chinese public communication. Yet, on the other hand, it allows the state to continuously track, monitor and silence contentious voices. Precisely because WeChat accounts are tied to smartphones it becomes easier to determine a user’s identity and GPS location. Censorship research shows that WeChat, like all other major Chinese platforms, is certainly not exempt from systematic practices of keyword filtering (Ng 2015). These forms of surveillance and censorship, in turn, inform how self-expression takes shape, resulting in different levels of self-censorship, given that users are well aware of state monitoring practices.



Bennett WL and Segerberg A (2012). The logic of connective action: Digital media and the personalization of contentious politics. Information, Communication & Society 15(5): 739-768.

Custer C (2015). WeChat, Weibo ordered to crack down on viral pollution film ‘Under the Dome,’ but discussion continues. Tech in Asia. Available from: https://www.techinasia.com/wechat-weibo-ordered-crack-viral-pollution-film-under-dome-discussion-continues (accessed 26 February 2016).

Papacharissi Z and de Fatima Oliveira M (2012) Affective news and networked publics: The rhythms of news storytelling on #Egypt. Journal of Communication 62(2): 266-282.

Poell, T., Kloet, J. de, & Zeng, G. (2014). Will the real Weibo please stand up? Chinese online contention and actor-network theory. Chinese Journal of Communication, 7(1), 1–18. http://doi.org/10.1080/17544750.2013.816753

Valenzuela S (2013) Unpacking the use of social media for protest behavior the roles of information, opinion expression, and activism. American Behavioral Scientist 57(7): 920-942.

Ng J (2015) Politics, Rumors, and Ambiguity: Tracking Censorship on WeChat’s Public Accounts Platform. Citizen Lab Report. Available from: https://citizenlab.org/2015/07/tracking-censorship-on-wechat-public-accounts-platform/ (accessed 25 February 2016).