Lessons from parallel digital worlds

The digital world is not a homogenous whole, but a series of parallel states, twisting ideas into new forms as they pass between them. And Instagram is becoming a very western version of a Chinese idea…

There are Parallelwelten — parallel worlds — within our own planet. Our screens, from our cinemas to our TVs to our phones, may make the world feel very small, but it’s not. And you only really experience that — and the culture shock that comes with it — when you travel.

A couple of summers ago I spent two weeks in India. The first stretch was in Chennai, which was, like many international cities, familiar and computable to me. And the second was in Kerala, on the opposite side of the country, working with the local publisher there — and, all of a sudden, I was out of my comfort zone, in a very different part of the world. I was surrounded by people who dressed differently, lived differently, and even ate differently to me. I struggled, initially, to adjust.

The combination of (relatively) cheap international travel and the internet has yet to deliver the homogenisation of culture that many feared. So it is in many parts of the world, and we that live in the west would do well to remember that.

While in Europe and the US we talk about the transition to the mobile internet, in great swathes of the planet the desktop internet was never really a major factor. Their entire experience of digital is delivered through mobile phones.

Go further afield to China, and you find a very different world again. Martin spoke of the rise of Tencent – but its value is substantially in WeChat, the app which has pretty much supplanted the internet in the country.

A parallel world where WeChat rules

WeChat is far, far more than just a chat app. It’s a payment mechanism. It’s an online shopping mall. Having a presence within WeChat is far more important than having a website. Life in the country is rapidly becoming unimaginable without it:

There are 800 million internet users in China, but over one billion WeChat accounts. Just about every Chinese online has at least one account, and some more than one. Over one-third of them spend four hours or more on the app each day. The prevalence has made WeChat an indispensable part of many people’s lives and work. Two years ago, I met two people who refused to use WeChat, and I thought about writing a story about how people like them navigated work and life. Before I got around to it, both became my WeChat friends.

Some of the biggest companies in the world have stumbled here. Even Apple was recently brought low by unexpectedly bad iPhone sales in China. But then, the Chinese phone market doesn’t behave like other markets, as Ben Thompson explained in Stratechery a couple of years ago:

Naturally, WeChat works the same on iOS as it does on Android. That, by extension, means that for the day-to-day lives of Chinese there is no penalty to switching away from an iPhone.

And, indeed, they switch between platforms much more fluidly than in other countries, for exactly that reason. Apple under-estimates that factor, and paid the penalty. If you want to live in parallelwelten, you need to understand them both.

Learning from Parallelwelten

This is a clear example of why we need to look outside our own worlds. WeChat is both an inspiration and a warning. It’s clearly been an inspiration to Facebook as it develops out its WhatsApp and Messenger products. Oh, how Mr Zuckerberg would love either of them to fulfil the role WeChat does in China for the rest of the world. As Facebook pivots to “privacy”, think of the potential implications.

Equally, China serves as a warning. The more centralised a system is, the more it can be controlled. Regulators in the EU and the US would be well served to pay attention to these markets – because they might finally be able to legislate pro-actively, not retroactively.

However, we should not assume that as ideas jump between those parallel worlds that they will remain unchanged by the trip. If we were to concentrate on WhatsApp and Messenger, we might miss the true story. Luckily, Taylor Lorenz of The Atlantic has been watching:

As Instagram has grown to more than a billion monthly users, it has also morphed into people’s default public internet profile and communication method. “I cannot imagine preferring phone number to Instagram handle,” said Ziad Ahmed, the founder of Juv, a Generation Z consulting agency.

Interesting. And what else has Instagram announced of late?

Instagram is launching shoppable posts as it looks to create a “seamless experience” for retailers.

The ‘shopping’ feature will allow brands and businesses to tag up to five products in organic posts which consumers can then tap on the product to find out more information and make a purchase.

Shopping inside Instagram. The picture suddenly snaps into focus.

Chat. Information. Identity. Retail. In this parallel world, it’s Instagram that is becoming the central app. Parallel worlds, different stories.

But that’s why we tell ourselves parallel world stories, isn’t it? By examining something through different eyes, through different cultural values, we see it afresh. And when we see ourselves through the eyes of Parallelwelten, we learn.

Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash