Alipay’s new feature turned itself into a hookup app: How could Alipay have been this stupid?

People downloading the Alipay app

Alipay, one of China’s best-known digital payment apps owned by Ant Financial Services Group, the financial affiliate of China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba, recently rolled out its social networking platform in an ambitious attempt to take on the country’s leading social app, WeChat. However, something went terribly wrong: the platform was accidentally converted into a “booty call” service network glutted with large numbers of pictures of scantly-clad women and titillating posts.

On November 27th, Ant Financial updated its flagship Alipay app with a new social feature named “Quanzi”, or “Circles” in English that allows users to stay updated on topics of interest to them and get in touch with like-minded users online. Alipay says in a statement that the new feature is designed to build real-name online communities where users can socialise with each other more easily within the company’s big-data-driven credit rating system. According to Alipay insiders, the feature is a product of the intersection between online networking and consumer behaviour. It is believed that Alipay’s existing credit system enables itself to accurately identify users of the same interest and build trust in online communities.

Only female users are allowed to post in the “Campus Diary” group

However, the new feature comes with some controversial settings that underlie the unfortunate backfiring. All of Alipay’s 400 million users can join any “Circles” groups according to their identities: for example, the “Campus Diary” for college students, the “White Collar Diary” for white collar workers and “Oversea Diary” for overseas Chinese. Oddly enough, the “Campus Diary” and the “White Collar Diary” only allow female users to post, and any group members can “praise” or “tip” their posts. Group members are rated by their virtual credit points evaluated by Alibaba’s credit system: a higher virtual credit point suggests a higher social status. For male users, only those with over 750 points can comment the female-authored posts, and those with less than 750 points can only “praise” the posts.

This credit system is essentially a loyalty program to e-commerce giant Alibaba, specifying that users get higher points if they pay or transfer money via Alipay frequently. If you “praise” a post, you will then be directed to a transaction page where you have to choose the actual money amount you want to “tip” the post author, from less than 1 yuan to 200 yuan via Alipay’s payment platform.

Women post sexy pictures and suggestive texts for “tip”

And this is what has gone wrong: the point-based gendered system led to another gendered transaction, sex. Post authors, who are identified as females, upload photos of scantily-clad women showing cleavages or sexy parts and write suggestive texts asking male users for tips, chats, or hookups. It certainly has taken several steps further than what the dating app Tinder does. Chinese tech media reported that these racy information exploded the platform within hours after the launch of the new feature.

Zhihu (Chinese Quora website) user Wang Ping sharply comments that, “the concept is the same with nightclubs that allow free-entry for women but charge men, and it even narrows down to young college-educated women and wealthy men. Each takes what he or she needs.”

On Monday morning, Alipay posted a statement on Weibo without directly addressing the compromising posts.Instead, the company said that the “Circles” was still in the testing phase and it vowed to crack down on “harmful” information. On the evening of the same day, Alipay introduced another 18 “Circles” groups which do not have female-only rules.

Finally, Lucy Peng Lei, chairwoman of Ant Financial Services Group, apologised to the public concerning the controversy triggered by the “Circles”. “The past two days have been the most difficult since I joined Alipay seven years ago,” said Peng, “the account of those who published erotic photos maliciously and violated the bottom line will be closed permanently and they will never be allowed to register again.”

Alipay needs to see transformation, Peng said frankly in the letter, but she still believes Circles is a good product, and thanks the thousands of netizens that spoke out. “The most precious thing for Alibaba is the courage to correct mistakes. Alipay should keep trying, while Alibaba’s employees should learn to rethink and examine themselves.”

However, the Alipay scandal has not ended with Peng’s heartfelt apology, as many local media suspect that it was more of Alipay’s sensationalising marketing than an accident cock-up. The racy information was immediately attention-grabbing to boost viewers: up until 10pm on the 27th, over 6.7 million users have viewed the “Campus Diary”, and 5.87 million have viewed the “White Collar Diary”. Though the social networking feature is still, as the company claims, “in its testing phase”, then it has garnered enough word-of-mouth attention for its official launch. While there have been myriads of scathing criticisms on Alipay’s “mistake”, some Weibo users show sympathy, “they just want to create new business opportunities”.

The competition between WeChat and Alipay is intense

It is not hard to tell why Alipay makes an overhasty foray into building new social networking products. Xinhua News Agency observes that Alipay’s competitor, WeChat has held 800 million active users, among which 600 million use WeChat’s digital wallet (another online payment tool) frequently; however, Alipay only has about 450 million users since it was launched over a decade ago. Wang Xiaofeng, senior analyst with Forrester Research said that Alibaba has never given up its hope in this field after years of efforts launching a variety of messaging services, “with WeChat growing bigger and bigger to include payment into its service, it makes sense for Alipay launch a counter attack to step up its effort in social networking.”

“How could Alipay have been so stupid?” Some Weibo users comment on the scandal. Anyhow, as some observer justly criticised, Alipay’s new move may be an impetuous response under the pressure of the fierce competition in China. Whether a financial app like Alipay is able to make its creative mark on the social networking market is yet to be seen, but it definitely requires additional efforts to hammer out a more rational and well-thought-out approach.

The article was originally published on China Info 24 on November 30, 2016.

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