In honor of arrival of the Year of the Dog in February, I sent my nephew in China a gift of money through a chat app on my phone. He pocketed it happily, using the same app to express his appreciation, thanks and best wishes back at me for the new year.
It was another day, another dollar, as they say, or the everyday sort of transaction that people in some countries like China don’t think twice about. For people in most Western nations, though, this sort of payment system is still something of a curiosity.
That’s changing fast, though. And as the social sharing economy continues to evolve, look for such peer-to-peer transactions over people’s social feeds to become the norm. It quite possibly may disrupt the traditional banking system as we know it.
Venmo, PayPal’s free digital wallet, was an early player in Western economies, launched in 2009, but really taking off in 2014 as Android Pay and Apple Pay made their much vaunted debuts. Other entries since – Facebook Pay, Google Wallet, Square Cash – speak to a concept whose time has come. Case in point: Venmo handled $17.6 billion in transactions in 2016; that almost doubled to $34.2 billion last year.
If there’s a model for the rest of the world to follow, it’s China’s. Its system was a response in a country that had no credit card use, and whose banks were inefficient and underused. In less than 10 years, two rival payment services, Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay, have transformed China’s financial ecosystem by making mobile payments – especially social mobile payments – an easy and accessible option.
As social payments continue to catch on in the U.S., the U.K., Canada and other nations, it’s moving us ever closer to becoming cashless economies. In fact, Sweden may be an example today of how we’ll all be operating in the not-to-distant future. A mere 1 percent of the value of all payments made in Sweden are in coins or notes. Its citizens live for their bank cards, but over half Sweden’s population depends on the leading social payment smartphone app, Swish.
It’s not just the world’s more privileged societies that stand to benefit from this evolving financial ecosystem. Social payments stand to bring much needed financial services to countries with significant populations of unbanked or underbanked people. Financial inclusion, of course, is key to lifting them from poverty.
Even if traditional banking services aren’t available to such populations, mobile phones increasingly are. Their pace of adoption is on a positive trendline, at 37 percent of the populations of underdeveloped economies.
Not surprisingly, both Tencent and Alibaba affiliate Ant Financial (formerly known as Alipay) see an opportunity to make inroads in countries where people may be unbanked, but not unphoned. Both are moving aggressively in Southeast Asia as part of that quest; at the end of last year, the Alipay service reportedly had 280 million users of its four local payment platforms in Thailand, India, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
The sharing economy is real and expanding rapidly. By 2025, a PricewaterhouseCoopers study found, spending in the five components that comprise it (travel, car sharing, staffing, streaming and, no surprise, finance) may hit $335 billion – or half of total spending in those areas.
It’s not just social payments that will help to reshape the financial sector. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin will be another facet, a means for settling payments directly and without much hassle or effort.
Either way, though, if this new social order we’re developing can advance those who currently have no access to things the rest of us take for granted like financial services, then it’s all to the good.