“Buying Twitter is an accelerator to create X, the app for everything.” Billionaire Elon Musk wrote this sentence on Twitter after having apparently changed his mind, once again, on the acquisition of the platform.
In a letter sent to the company, Mr. Musk agreed to pay the price he had offered several months ago before backing out of the haggling.
But with this message on the social network, the owner of Tesla and SpaceX has shown his intention to take a new step on Twitter.
According to Zoe Kleinman, the BBC’s technology editor, Mr Musk may well be thinking of something similar to the hit Chinese app WeChat.
WeChat is a kind of “super-app” that brings together a multitude of services, including messaging, social networks, payments and ordering food. This is something that does not yet exist in the West.
Compared to its rivals, Twitter is a relatively small platform, with around 300 million active users, and has never seen the exponential growth of TikTok or Instagram, for example.
But it is considered influential and is widely used by politicians, world leaders and businesses to share comments and opinions.
When he announced his intention to buy Twitter, Mr Musk said he wanted to open up the platform to greater “freedom of expression”, with less moderation, a difficult line for any company to cross and maintain. social media outlets whose hate speech laws and regulations vary around the world.
However, Mr. Musk may want to turn the platform into something very different, which could displease his current users but also appeal to a whole new audience, according to Kleinman.
I’m stuck at home caring for a sick child when suddenly a familiar feeling comes over me: a craving for durian, a tropical fruit from Southeast Asia.
But you don’t have to go to a stall or supermarket to buy it, take it home, and fight to open its spiky shell.
I just pull out my phone, open an app called Grab – named after a Singaporean e-commerce company – and tap the screen a few times.
Forty-five minutes later, there’s a knock on my door. A delivery man hands me a bag: it’s my durian, freshly peeled and sealed in a plastic container, ready to eat.
Whether it’s ordering taxis or food, paying bills or booking vacations, great apps like Grab offer an incredible range of services.
Elon Musk plans to create a so-called X, but in many parts of Asia similar apps have been a staple of our daily lives for some years now.
I mainly use Grab to get a ride home after a night out, or to order Thai food to take away when I don’t have the energy to cook dinner for the family.
But many Singaporeans also use it to send packages and documents, or shop online. A colleague has just ordered a karaoke machine for his house.
Other apps allow you to book bus and ferry tickets, hotel rooms and even have someone come to your house for a Covid test.
These products and services can be paid for through the app’s own system. An e-wallet is linked to your bank account or credit card, and can be set up to pay multiple times, or even with the points you earn with every activity you do through the app.
It can also be used for cashless payments, either by scanning a QR code with the app in a store or with a physical card linked to your account.
But Grab is not the only actor. There are tons of superapps, from Indonesian GoJek to Indian PayTM, that let you do even more things, like book a manicure, order fuel for your motorbike, pay a ticket and even buy gold .
A course set by China
Superapps have found a niche in the digital world. In Southeast Asia alone, nearly three-quarters of the population use the Internet, and of this group, 88% own a smartphone.
There’s also WeChat, in China, the original Asian super app that is said to have inspired Musk’s X. It is a messaging and networking platform, which has become one of the largest applications in the region in terms of range of services and number of users. At last count, it is estimated to have 1.29 billion users in China alone.
WeChat is also one of the largest payment networks in China, and consumers use it to pay for goods and services and to send money to each other.
Some research indicates that a Chinese user spends up to a third of their hours – not counting the times when they sleep – on WeChat.
Much has been written about how its ubiquity in the daily lives of Chinese people, in a society strictly controlled by the government, has made WeChat a tool of surveillance and censorship.
Messages, posts and even accounts are routinely blocked for content deemed to be politically sensitive.
There are also concerns about how it could contribute to China’s various controversial “social credit” programs, under which citizens’ lives can be restricted based on their bank credit rating or social behavior.
In 2020, WeChat introduced its own rating system where users get additional privileges if they have a good credit record on the app.
The example of WeChat highlights the main concern about superapps: since everyone does almost everything on a few platforms, these apps end up collecting a large amount of data on people and could exert a certain power over our daily lives. .
How this data is processed and the extent to which governments should have access to it will be part of the debate in societies where privacy is particularly valued.
Musk’s X superapp, if it comes to fruition, could be seen by some as a double-edged sword.
For others, however, the convenience and simplicity of one-app living outweighs the inconvenience. For those who are deeply concerned about privacy, there is always the option of reducing usage.
And in open markets, applications will continue to compete for users’ attention, reducing the likelihood that most data will end up in the hands of just one or two companies; one of the reasons for WeChat’s dominance in China is that some apps like Twitter and WhatsApp are blocked there.
Here in Singapore, I don’t do everything on Grab. It’s not because I’m suspicious, but I prefer to use specific apps for other things, like shopping at the market or shopping for clothes, because they’re better at that.
I don’t mind the Grab superapp because it doesn’t know everything about me, just a few things, like the fact that I like home-delivered durians.