Shen Man preens in front of a mirror before her show starts. The 21-year-old used to be a nurse, but now sings for money full time on YY, one of China’s largest livestreaming platforms. In the real world, Man is a diaosi—Chinese slang that roughly means “loser”—but online she’s a star.
She sings for the camera, flirts with fans online, and courts wealthy patrons to help pay her bills. She has money, but she’s miserable. “When I think about it, I feel disconnected from society,” she says. “I don’t go out or even see the sun.”
Her unemployed father lingers in the background, chain smoking and trying to stay out of Man’s camera angle. Man makes enough money to support the family, but her father doesn’t think it will last. “At most, she’s got two years left on YY,” he says. “She’s turning 22 soon.”
This is a scene from People’s Republic of Desire, a new documentary from filmmaker Hao Wu that explores the depressing and lucrative world of livestreaming in China. The film follows two streamers, Man and an online comedian called Big Li, as they raise through the ranks of YY and compete with other streamers for prestige and cash.
Livestreaming is huge in China. According to Wu, more than 400 million citizens—roughly half of the country’s internet users—watch some form of livestream, whether it’s someone singing, cooking and eating lunch, or doing impromptu stand up comedy. It’s an industry worth $4.4 billion. Wu’s documentary, which is in theaters now, explores how that industry works and what it does to the people who participate in it.
Wu worked in the tech industry in both China and the US before becoming a filmmaker, he told me in an interview. One day in 2014, a financial analyst friend asked him about YY and pointed out that the company was valued at $2.5 billion on NASDAQ. “I was really shocked because I had never heard about the company before,” Wu told me over the phone.
He researched YY, talked to friends and realized something—everyone, rich and poor, was using it. “As soon as I realized that this website was attracting a lot of rich young people and poor young people—the losers of Chinese society—to the same platform, worshipping the same livestreaming idols, I knew there was a story here.”
In America, users on the US-based livestreaming service Twitch stream for hours at a time—usually playing video games—and encourage people to either donate or subscribe to their channel for a small fee. Twitch takes a cut of the money and the streamers keep performing. On Twitch, anyone can hop on to the stream and try to chat with the streamer for free. Not so on YY, where even the simplest interaction costs money.
“The interaction is all transacted in money,” Wu said. “To show your adoration of the livestreamer, the fans have to buy a digital gift.”
Livestreamers on YY earn a living through the grace of their patrons, which are stratified into three tiers. The largest contingent are diaosi—losers. “A lot of fans are lonely,” Wu said. “They don’t have friends in real life. They go online and they want to interact with some kind of celebrity or idol.”
The diaosi watch their favorite livestreamer and buy them virtual gifts—emojis, and digital presents such as flowers—and hope the streamer notices them.
The diaosi audience on YY eventually attracts China’s nouveau riche, who are looking to flaunt their wealth, Wu told me. “Once you attract a lot of these loser fans, then the rich people will have the incentive to buy you virtual gifts because as soon as you spend [money] on a live streamer, the livestreamer’s poor fans will clap,” Wu said.
Some of these wealthy patrons become celebrities in their own right on YY, Wu said. “Some of these patrons… They’re just competing, throwing money away frivolously so they can get recognition from the fans that they are number one, the wealthiest on the platform.”
The profit incentives built into YY have created a different kind of streaming culture in China than in the US—streamers in both countries hustle, but the specifics are different.
In America, YouTubers and Twitch streamers focus on churning out hours of content everyday to stay profitable. On YY, it’s all about relationships. A streamer will only spend a couple hours a day streaming, then get on the phone to talk to rich patrons or spend hours in chat rooms and message boards drumming up support among the losers.
Rich patrons typically have access to streaming celebrities in way that’s not common in the US. Li and Man field phone calls from rich patrons who promise more money and ask them to hang out.
“There are hidden rules in this world too,” Man says while she’s preparing for a stream. “Like those rich patrons. You think they’re idiots? Spending money on nothing? They’ll ask to meet you in person, or for something else. Of course I’m resentful. Every girl wants to live like a princess. But when money is involved, family love, friendship—they are all bullshit. All bullshit. People worship you if you are rich. Nobody gives a damn if you're poor.”
It’s an intense and demanding life for the streamers. Wu said that Li and Man rake in about $80,000 to $100,000 a month, but all of their free time is spent keeping the money pouring in. “They don’t get out of the house,” Wu told me. “They only get out to have real life dinners with patrons.”
To keep things interesting, YY runs a yearly competition looking for the top YY Idols. Over the course of 15 days, livestreamers compete for votes to see who will become the year’s most popular idol. Users literally buy votes and the top YY idol is the streamer with the most capital behind them. Diaosi save up to help support their favorite streamers, rich patrons promise to spend big, and hyper-rich investors running streamer talent agencies commit millions of dollars to create the next YY superstar. Even the livestreamers spend money to pump up their own vote totals.
In the film, Man and Li hustle through these competitions as they sing, dance, tells jokes, and beg for money. YY fans spend millions of dollars every year voting for their favorite streamers and YY takes between 50 and 60 percent of all that pledged cash. The rest goes to the streamers, who—if they’re backed by a talent agency—split off a 20 percent take for their financial backers.
It’s a system where the streamers grind, the losers clap, and the rich spend, but the only real winner is the platform.
“It’s totally pointless,” Man’s father says at one point during the competition, marvelling at the huge sums of money streamers put up out-of-pocket to boost their chances. “Picasso [one of Big Li’s rivals] will end up losing $650 thousand of his own money. Big Li will lose almost $1 million. So both have already lost. Only the platform is the winner. Two fucking losers.”
Once a livestreamer reaches a certain level of success, it’s hard to leave the life behind, Wu said. “They feel very trapped by the internet,” he told me. “On the one hand, they’ve made a lot of money and can support their families. On the other hand, they’re miserable because they don’t have any real life friends. All they have is online connections, which may or may not be real.”
From the US, all this money and energy spent on livestreaming might seem ludicrous, but Wu argued that’s only because America’s social media platforms are built on different incentives. Ultimately, we’re all playing a rigged game of craps in a casino where the house always wins.
“Facebook has designed the game to maximize advertising revenue,” he said. “That’s why we have an echo chamber. It’s partly the platform, but it’s also the users themselves. We want to only listen to opinions that are similar to our own. We’re part of the game and the platforms use our desires and their algorithms to amplify that.”
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