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Let's keep talking

By Eric Jou | China Daily | Updated: 2012-11-27 17:31

Let's keep talking

Guillermo Munro / China Daily

The declining popularity of the once-ubiquitous MSN service shows how new messaging technology keeps us more connected than ever, Eric Jou reports.

Standing in an office corridor, Ouyang Yingjie, an associate at a B2C company in Shanghai, leans against a wall and talks on her cell phone. But instead of holding the phone to her ear, she holds it in front of her and speaks directly at it. She's using WeChat, a voice messaging app.

This is becoming a more usual sight in China as instant messaging and other communications have shifted into the mobile universe.

People like Ouyang are part of the growing number of messenger users that have moved on from the tether of desktop-based chat to new, mobile systems.

Ouyang says that she's addicted to messaging, and has been since she started using Tencent's QQ in her late teens.

Originally using QQ to interact with her friends and occasionally to play games, she started to use Microsoft's MSN messenger, because more of her friends were using it. Soon MSN became her chief text-messaging tool.

Melody Yang, an administrative aide in Taipei, began to use MSN at work about 10 years ago.

"I used MSN to chat with my friends but it soon became very useful when I entered the work force," Yang says. The immediate link with her work colleagues, she says, made it easier to get things done.

Yang's use of such tools has undergone an organic change. MSN was used for text-based messaging, but when Skype came out she was enticed by the face-to-face video chat. However, the clunky interfaces and the fact that both MSN and Skype (both can operate via smart phones now) are tied to a stationary computer have recently prompted Yang to embrace mobile messaging.

"I started using Line (a mobile-messaging app), because all of my friends were using it," Yang says. "It was different, I was able to chat with my little circle of friends at any given point, I was no longer tied down and I gradually started using the desktop less and less."

Earlier in November, Microsoft announced the gradual retirement of its MSN messenger in favor of Skype, which Microsoft had purchased in 2011.

MSN's total worldwide users number around 280 million.

Ouyang, meanwhile, says she uses WeChat more and more "because I carry my phone everywhere with me".

WeChat, she says, offers a clean interface that is simple and uncluttered. It also offers on-the-fly image grabbing and the ability to send large files.

"It's also fun to hold my phone in my hand instead of holding it to my ear," Ouyang says. "I could also use the video conference function for face-to-face chat or just voice chat, and it's cheaper than sending a text message via SMS."

Former Microsoft employee and current Beijing social-networking guru Frank Yu says that the change from MSN to WeChat was a gradual but inevitable outcome.

"WeChat, which is also made by the makers of QQ, Tencent, is a great replacement for QQ," Yu says. "Not only does WeChat offer instant text messaging, it also has voice, video conferencing, file exchange, location-based services. It even has some services not found in QQ and most of all, it's mobile."

WeChat currently boasts that it has a user base of more than 200 million worldwide.

Professor Hu Zhengrong, vice-president of Communication University of China, agrees with Yu that the twilight of MSN was inevitable.

Hu says that every time period has a different method of communications — and that the method of communications sets the social norms for interaction.

"New media is a revolutionary and disruptive change, that's not to say it's bad. Change signifies that such services are not meeting the needs and demand of the users," Hu says. "For instance with WeChat, we can use audio input over text and it has now changed and serves a need.

"After all, humans are sensory creatures and before we were putting out our thoughts in text, now we did it with sound."

Hu says the most important change in interactivity is that information can be transferred across both far and near distances in real time.

"Technology drives social norms, just as much as social norms dictate technology," Hu says. "What people want the most is something that can keep them connected in the most efficient way."

He adds that Chinese users have a different concept of personal space and their desire for social elements is stronger than Westerners.

"Personal space in China is non-existent. So when it comes to communicating, Chinese want to be close to the people they're communicating with."

However, Hu says, privacy should become a major concern. Many modern IM applications can pinpoint the whereabouts of a person.

"Weibo (Chinese micro-blogging service) and WeChat and other location-based services and near-field communications technology has made our lives more convenient,.

"But at the same time it threatens our privacy. For instance, everyone who uses these services, their movements and information are already out there and you can't escape it."

Despite privacy concerns, Yang, Ouyang and millions of others aren't likely to retreat from the instant messaging technology.

"Do I still use desktop-based instant messaging? Of course I do, every time I sit down in front of a computer," says Ouyang.

"The WeChat I use on my computer is the same as the one on my phone - it's all connected - so when I leave my computer I'm able to continue the conversation on my mobile.

"Mobile messaging has made my life more convenient."

Contact the writer at ericjou@chinadaily.com.cn.