Gen Z’s fascinations with the Metaverse allows Zheli to begin disrupting (slightly) a Tencent-dominated social network landscape
On February 10, a social app that had been online for less than a month surpassed Tencent’s messaging app WeChat in downloads, becoming the most downloaded app in the App Store’s social category.
Fuelled by the Metaverse frenzy, the app, launched on January 19, has witnessed a phenomenal rise in popularity and soon became a buzzword among youngsters. Although it has been pulled from the App Store, quite a few people are still excited about the novelty it brings.
Similar to South Korean 3D avatar social platform Zepeto, Zheli allows users to create a 3D full-body avatar to interact with others on its platform. The app, which only permits users to add up to 50 friends, describes itself as “a space that only belongs to you and your best pals”.
Zepeto’s avatar customization page
Upon entering the app, there will be a virtual square where users can see the different statuses their friends have set for their avatars, such as sleepy, at work, or studying. If the user authorises the app to track their location, their connections will be able to see more information about them, such as their local weather, phone battery level, etc.
A Zheli user sharing her virtual square page on the photo-sharing app Xiaohongshu
What intrigues users the most is its customisable outfits feature. But that’s nothing new, with Zepeto, Snapchat, and even Tencent’s 20-odd-year-old messaging app QQ having similar features.
Even though the app doesn’t have much to offer in its current state, its popularity amongst the Gen Z has surged due to the Metaverse frenzy, demonstrating the generation’s need for a fresh, distinctive social network. On major social platforms like Xiaohongshu, Weibo, and Douyin, Zheli users are eager to show off their experiences from using the app, as well as the daily outfits of their avatars.
“I need an online space where only my besties and I can share things we like and do things together, not a social software like WeChat that contains all kinds of social relationships, private or otherwise,” said Pan Yang, an 18-year-old Zheli user. “Most of the time, I don’t enjoy using WeChat, but I have to use it, because it’s the only dominant player in instant messaging in China.”
Born between the late 90s and the early 2010s, Gen Z accounts for around 15% of China’s population and is gaining spending power; hence winning them over is critical for any consumer-facing company. Right now, the Metaverse is seen as a key to establishing deeper ties between enterprises and this generation.
This is not without reason. While the word “Metaverse” has been in use since 1992 with Neal Stephenson’s fictional work, Snow Crash; in a broader sense, it’s a culmination of Gen Z trends, where gaming and social media intertwine to create a wider online space.
As the most digital-savvy generation, Gen Z sees little difference between the online and physical worlds, according to research conducted by the Centre for Generation Kinetics. For the people of this generation, their digital lives are as important as physical ones, where the Metaverse is not just “another life” but an extension of the ones they are currently living in the real world.
Zheli’s parent company has been making various attempts over the past few years in hopes of closing the gap with young consumers. As a company that started as a news aggregation platform, this is first reflected in its name change – from Yidian News (一点资讯) to Cyber Elephant (赛博大象). Now, the company has expanded beyond news services to participate in other markets such as social, gaming, video editing, and so on.
Most of Cyber Elephant’s endeavours were minor in influence, with only Zheli gaining fame right away for jumping on the Metaverse bandwagon. However, the hit software has also been the subject of dispute, including allegations of plagiarising independent designs and leaking user privacy.
On February 13, Cyber Elephant announced that the app would be removed from the App Store and its registration suspended due to a system update, adding that it had taken legal measures to protect its own rights and interests.
The app is currently down, but the buzz lingers, with quite a few youngsters talking about it on other social networks. Ming, a high school student born in 2003, said that after seeing the trailer video of Zheli on video streaming platform Bilibili, he felt excited to see an app that could challenge WeChat, even if it was only briefly. “I love the idea of being able to manage our identities through our avatars and reshape how we connect and play. I’ll get it once it’s back on the App Store.”
As social networks are seen as one of the most viable ways to access the Metaverse, huge amounts of money are being poured into building next-generation social apps. Virtual-world social network IMVU raised $35 million from various companies including NetEase last year. Recently, BUD, a Metaverse-themed social app, received $15 million in Series A+ financing, led by Qiming Venture Partners, supported by Source Code Capital, GGV Capital, and Sky9.