Twitter/ lessons from WeChat suggest Musk will struggle to create a super app 

Western social media companies have long dreamt of creating an everything app that can operate on the same scale as WeChat. In China, online activities are grouped in one place – shopping, payments, subscriptions, messaging and entertainment. Parent company Tencent takes a cut of financial transactions. WeChat is less reliant on advertising revenue than US platforms.

Elon Musk sees potential. When he agreed to buy Twitter he told employees there was an opportunity to build a WeChat equivalent outside China. His first tweet since agreeing to honour the deal stated that it was an accelerant to creating “X, the everything app.”

If Musk could turn Twitter into a super app he would radically transform its business. WeChat revenues, included in Tencent’s “Fintech and Business Services” were Rmb42.2bn ($5.9bn) in the last quarter — five times the size of Twitter’s. 

To get there, however, Musk would need more sign-ups. WeChat has over 1.3bn monthly users. Twitter has 238mn monetisable daily active users (a metric it made up). One option might be to push Twitter’s private messaging service. Alternatively, Musk could launch a new app. Tencent had messaging service QQ before creating WeChat as a mobile messaging app that cannibalised existing users.

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Yet the circumstances that allowed WeChat to grow are impossible to replicate in the US. WeChat was launched in 2011 and expanded with smartphone adoption. In China, using one app to access other services via mini-apps makes sense. Google’s app store, for example, is not available in the country. In the US, Apple and Google have a duopoly over app access. To make the service useful, Twitter would need to build partnerships with companies like ride-hailing company Uber and add them to Twitter’s app. But these companies already have standalone apps and will not welcome Twitter acting as gatekeeper. Snap’s attempt to add mini-apps has been put on hold.

Musk’s background in online banking may give him an advantage in adding payments to social media, though Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey runs payments platform Block and has not managed to meld the two. In a crowded market under intense regulatory scrutiny, Twitter’s odds of becoming a one-stop shop app are not promising.

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