Culture

Chinese kids are avoiding their parents by using this ’90s messaging app

Nov 05, 2018

It’s kind of like being on AOL because your parents aren’t.

One of China’s OG messaging platforms is enjoying a second wind, thanks to younger users signing up.

When QQ first launched in 1999, its timing and success propelled its owner, Tencent, to ubiquity in China. The country was enjoying explosive growth in internet usage, and millions of new users were signing on to chat on QQ. The platform’s penguin mascot became an icon.

QQ in 1999.
QQ in 1999. / Photo: Tencent

By the early 2010s, QQ fell out of favor as newer social apps like WeChat (also Tencent-owned) pulled users away.

But the tides are turning back in this granddaddy’s favor.

Eighteen-year-old David Liu wasn’t even born when QQ was launched, but he has turned to it because “I do not want to be monitored by my parents [who are on WeChat rather than QQ] when I start university,” he says.

QQ today.
QQ today. / Photo: Tencent

QQ knows it’s suddenly got a much younger audience, and in recent years, it has released a raft of features aimed at appealing to Gen Z.

These include facial beautifying tools, painting filters for photos, animated video stickers, face swap effects, and video chat filters, all designed to make interaction and communication on its social platform more fun and entertaining. Users can create GIFs of themselves, decorate them with animated stickers, and share them with friends.

“All these entertaining tools make QQ very attractive to me,” says 15-year-old William Yi. “Communicating on QQ is a lot of fun. I can swap cartoon faces and turn the voice into text during video chats with friends.”

Adapting to a new generation

The pre-smartphone years of 1999, when QQ was first released, looked very different for messaging apps. Each user was simply issued a unique QQ number, username, and profile so that they could chat on a desktop computer with other PC users.

The platform grew from 233 million monthly active users in 2006 to a peak of 899 million 10 years later. But a rapid migration was underway to mobile apps like WeChat, currently China’s biggest messaging app.

QQ in 2003.
QQ in 2003. / Photo: Tencent

Today, QQ’s monthly user base remains at about 800 million people. More importantly to its prospects, a growing proportion of those are aged 21 and under.

“If you use QQ mobile messenger, it feels very colorful and lively,” says Matthew Brennan, who tracks Tencent at China Channel, a Shenzhen-based marketing agency, “and I think that’s the right strategy. Live-streaming, e-sports, and short videos … whatever is popular among young people, you can find in QQ.”

This includes additional QQ-linked products such as Interest Tribe, which lets teenagers connect with others who share their interests and hobbies. That service alone has about 100 million users.

QQ Interest Tribe lets teenagers connect with others who share their interests and hobbies.
QQ Interest Tribe lets teenagers connect with others who share their interests and hobbies. / Photo: Tencent

“I can reach my son by WeChat, but he seldom shares his life on WeChat’s [timeline feature],” says Wang Xuehong, whose son is 14. “I know he shares more things on QQ. I also have a QQ account but will not add him as a QQ friend. … I respect that he keeps his own space for communicating with friends.”

Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.