KUALA LUMPUR: Sam is looking for a hot date. But the 24-year-old student from a private university isn’t “putting his moves on” at a night club or a café. Instead, he keeps his eyes on his smartphone.
He spots his target on screen – a pretty girl, judging by her profile picture. She is alone and she has deliberately allowed herself to be discovered through her mobile device. He sends her a message.
“Hi, how are you?” he begins. He would follow it with small talk and trivial conversation. Eventually, the topic turns to sex.
A week later, they check into a hotel room together.
Sam is just one of the many people who have turned to their smartphone applications for a quick and easy date. The particular app here is WeChat, a popular instant messaging app from China.
One of WeChat’s most popular functions is Look Around, which allows users to scan their surroundings and link up with other people within a 3km radius.
Other users with the Look Around feature turned on can be discovered and so a conversation can be initiated.
The feature, meant to discover new and like-minded friends within your vicinity, has now been turned into a method for people to discover potential one night stands.
This isn’t a feature exclusive to WeChat. Geosocial networking, as this is called, has been available in “hook-up” apps like Blendr, Grindr and Singapore-based Paktor to set up dates and other misadventures.
WeChat, however, is not designed and marketed for this. The application has no age restrictions and can be downloaded by anyone. The application doesn’t require users to register their real names, letting users interact with each other anonymously.
A seemingly harmless instant messaging app might just be used for more than making friends.
Using WeChat as a hook-up application isn’t confined to Malaysia. AsiaOne has reported a story on how Singaporeans have been using WeChat as a means for one night stands and extra-marital affairs.
The story cites the anonymity of the user and ease of hooking up as having made it easy for people to seek and engage in sexual relations.
And it is easy indeed, as Sam puts it. The student would enable the Look Around feature everywhere he goes and has been “getting lucky” constantly.
“When I add people into my contact list after discovering them, I will observe their movements and find out which girls indicate that they’re lonely through their status updates, and whether their photos show that they are a flirt,” he tells The Heat.
“I would choose a good-looking girl and text her,” he adds, saying the conversation will turn more flirtatious and sexual as it goes on.
“We sometimes end up sending naughty photos or videos to each other.”
Sam uses WeChat to keep in touch with the girls he dates, and they would meet again at the same hotel for sex.
The virtual Casanova also uses the application to simultaneously date multiple girls.
“I’m not only engaging one girl with this application. I use it to chat with several girls and date them,” he says.
“But I don’t end up having sex with all of them,” he adds wryly, saying that this is because hotel rooms are too expensive for students like him.
Sam takes full advantage of the app’s innocent demeanour, as well as some of its notable features.
“Whenever I’m on a date with my girlfriends, I would uninstall the application and then reinstall it, which wipes out all my conversations,” he says.
“The best part of this app is that your contacts are not deleted when you uninstall and reinstall it.”
Sam says that he also discovers that married women are also using WeChat to find one night stand partners. He understands that the app is being misused by married people for extra-marital affairs, but won’t deny that it is useful to “look around, chat around and sleep around”.
His housemates are also using WeChat to hook up with girls and date them, adding that he would also set up his friends with the girls from his contact list, and they had dated.
That Sam can so easily seek out a partner using the application is no surprise, as WeChat has an immensely wide user base. The instant messaging app has over 600 million registered user accounts worldwide, with a 60% penetration rate among Malaysian smartphone users.
But WeChat isn’t just serving as a hub for instant affairs. Sam notes that people are also using the app for business. Businesses that include the selling of sex toys and prostitution.
“One time, when I was using the Look Around feature, a girl started a chat with me and told me about her ‘service’. I figured she was a prostitute trying to get customers and I stopped my conversation with her,” he says.
In a media event, Louis Song, WeChat country manager of Singapore and Malaysia, says that “WeChat is a way to make aspects of everyday life more convenient”. But should it be making things more convenient for people to engage in sexual activities and extra-marital affairs?
Misusing the app as a way for a casual hook-up is one thing. The fact that WeChat can be accessed and downloaded by anyone of any age means that minors might be subject to inappropriate content.
In November last year, the Chinese media reported that high school students are being exposed to prostitution accounts via the instant messaging app. A quick search on the Internet also shows that websites selling sex toys would also provide their WeChat addresses as another channel of business.
It could be worse. A regular user unintentionally leaving her Look Around feature turned on might be getting unwanted requests. Or, like the girls that Sam engages, use it for casual, sexual relationships.
Right now, it is best that parents keep an eye out on their children’s WeChat activities, but the best way to solve it depends solely on WeChat’s initiatives. Critics have been calling the company to implement real-name registrations to avoid its issue with user anonymity.
Perhaps it is more prudent that age-restrictions or stricter content filtering be put in place.
This app makes it easier to connect with our friends and family, but the misuse of it will become something that will corrupt our generation.
This article was first published in the March 29, 2014 issue of The Heat.