What Happens to WeChat's 22 Million Users? Left to Fend for Themselves?

Two numbers stand out in an analysis of social media app WeChat. It has a billion users worldwide and 22 million active users in the United States. To confirm either number is impossible, but WeChat is certainly among the most widely used apps in the world. Presumably, most of its users are in China, where its parent company is based.

A U.S. Department of Commerce order prohibits downloads of WeChat as of September 20. To be more precise: “Any provision of service to distribute or maintain the WeChat or TikTok mobile applications, constituent code, or application updates through an online mobile application store in the U.S.”

The Chinese Communist Party, the Commerce Department reasons, may use WeChat to get information about Americans that could be used for diabolical purposes. Whether or not that is true, WeChat, as it operates in the United States, may be finished. The 22 million active users could be left on what is essentially an island, as the app becomes less and less attractive as a means to communicate over the social network.

One way to look at the new provision is what would have happened to Facebook under similar circumstances. It has 2.2 billion monthly worldwide users now. Facebook’s U.S. user base in 2009 was about the same as WeChat’s U.S. user base today. Since people download social apps to communicate with one another, once that “one another” stops growing, the value of the app quickly disappears. The 22 million WeChat people have become a walled garden, which defeats the reasons to have the app at all. A similar challenge to Facebook’s growth would have prevented it from becoming one of the world’s largest tech companies.

WeChat’s problems with the U.S. government may spread elsewhere. The accusation that it is used to gather data for China may be just convincing enough that other western governments follow along. WeChat may well be boxed out of most of Europe and other countries that have factious relationships with China. India, the world’s second-largest country by population, quickly comes to mind.

Social media, by their nature, are meant to work across borders without restriction. That is what makes them so attractive to users. WeChat’s 22 million U.S. users, if permanently cut off, will have lost the “social” part of the medium, to a very large extent.