Alipay’s New Social Media Feature Hits Roadblock Over Suggestive Photos Controversy

Alibaba has been working to incorporate social media features into its platforms as it responds to e-commerce on WeChat, but one recent debacle over a new chat app has been generating a stir on social media.

The e-commerce giant’s PayPal-like Alipay launched a new social networking function called “Circles” on November 27th that was originally aimed at creating open communities among its 400 million users. The app quickly backfired within hours of the debut, however, when many female users started posting suggestive photos for compensation, with messages implying that they’d also be willing to provide prostitution services.

The rules to use the “Circles” set by Alipay allowed this practice to proliferate. Within the app, people can choose to join groups that they are interested in to share their videos and photos with group members. However, its most popular groups seemed to be about more than just bonding over a shared interest. Two of them called “White Collar Diary” and “Campus Diary” dictated that only female users were allowed to post. Group members who liked these ladies’ posts could comment or tip them directly from Alipay Wallet. Another controversial aspect was that on “Circles,” only those who had acquired enough credit scores rated by the app based on their previous consumption records were allowed to comment or tip in the group.

The concept underlying this function resembles those of dating apps such as “Tinder,” but with a “tip” button on Alipay rather than the opportunity to swipe right or left. As a result, “Circles” immediately attracted online attacks from Chinese users who accused Alipay’s developers of objectifying women to achieve their commercial interests. One of Weibo’s most outspoken and controversial KOLs, Wang Sicong, who is also the son of Dalian Wanda tycoon Wang Jianlin, called Alipay a “brothel” by making a play on words with Alipay’s Chinese name, Zhifubao.

Weibo KOL Wang Sicong called Alipay a “brothel” (支付鸨) by making a play on words with Alipay’s Chinese name, Zhifubao (支付宝).

Weibo KOL Wang Sicong called Alipay a “brothel” (支付鸨) by making a play on words with Alipay’s Chinese name, Zhifubao (支付宝).

Executive Chairman of Alibaba’s financial services company Ant Financial Lucy Peng issued an apology on Weibo on 29th, but that has not cooled the heated discussion among Chinese users. Peng’s emotional letter said the past two days had marked the hardest period of time during her seven-year work at Alipay, stating, “regardless of whether Alipay did it on purpose or not, this issue hurt people’s feeling.” She added Alipay should not give up its integrity to win users. Over the past few years, Alibaba has constantly fought for its reputation over issues such as counterfeit products and fraud scandals.

In essence, the “Circles” incident represents another round of attempts by Alipay to become an app that features both payment and social media functions. The motive behind the social media ambition by Alipay is embedded in the battle between Alibaba and Tencent, who both want to dominate the country’s social networking financial market. Even though Alibaba was the first one who introduced the concept of the “electronic wallet” to the Chinese market, the wallet function promoted by Tencent’s WeChat has been gaining ground in recent years, now accounting for 21 percent of market share versus 69 percent by Alipay in 2016. With more than 800 million monthly active users on WeChat, some critics on say Alibaba may have been too quick to roll out a feature aimed at keeping its market dominance.

Homepage of WeChat's payment function (Left) and Alipay (Right)

Homepage of WeChat’s payment function (Left) and Alipay (Right)

Many Chinese users posted online that they only want Alipay to be a wallet for now, expressing concern under Peng’s apology post. For instance, one commenter said, “I want an electronic wallet, not a new version of “Moments.” ” “Moments” is WeChat’s fundamental feature where users can post text-based updates, up to nine images, videos, and articles, among others, to their friends. As it works to compete with Tencent, it remains to be seen whether or not the setback will discourage Alipay from forging ahead with more social elements in the future.

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