The Performers Behind China’s Much-Derided Livestreaming App
In the last six years, the Chinese smartphone app Kuaishou has fought off competition in the country’s cutthroat online entertainment industry to accumulate more than 500 million registered users. In June, Kuaishou was valued at a reported $2 billion. It is now China’s fourth largest social media platform, after WeChat, QQ, and Sina Weibo.
Kuaishou’s immense popularity comes from the short videos that its users pre-record and post online, and from its accessible livestreaming service. Users often deliberately depict themselves doing unflattering, embarrassing, or outright disgusting things. Though some media commentators have criticized the app for hosting such content, this vernacular form of creativity has made Kuaishou popular among investors.
What kind of people performs on Kuaishou? What motivates them to sign up in the first place, and who are their viewers? Sixth Tone put these questions to Chris K. K. Tan, an associate professor of anthropology at Shandong University who led a research project on China’s beloved short-video app this summer. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: What distinguishes Kuaishou from other smartphone apps?
Chris K. K. Tan: On Kuaishou, subscribers can pre-record and share short videos of about a minute in length. A limited number of vetted users, called zhubo — “broadcast jockeys” — can also livestream their performances.
Most videos have unabashedly crude humor and offer entertainment that reflects the lower socioeconomic backgrounds of the app’s subscribers. These videos induce anxiety, disgust, and loathing with their sheer boorishness. For example, I once watched a video of a man standing next to a cow in a field. In a strong northeastern accent, the man said, “I’ll show you what chui niubi really is,” using an idiom that means “telling tall tales” and adding a vulgar suffix referring, very colloquially, to a vagina — something like “blowing a cow’s pussy.” Suddenly, another man jumped into the shot and shoved the first man’s face into the cow’s rump. The first man fell over spluttering, raucous canned laughter ensued, and the cow turned around nonchalantly before the video abruptly ended.
Sixth Tone: What are the demographics of the app’s performers and subscribers?
Tan: I think subscribers and viewers are from the same demographic. Nearly 75 percent of Kuaishou users are under 25 years old. In addition, 88 percent have not attended university. Most are either unemployed or hold low-end jobs — 43 percent are students and 11 percent are jobless or work as laborers or service workers. They’re also poor — about 70 percent earn less than 3,000 yuan a month — and a majority of them live in less developed parts of the country, including third-tier cities and below. In popular discourse, Kuaishou users are usually depicted as farmers or rural migrant workers.
Sixth Tone: What were your research methods?
Tan: First of all, my research assistants and I watched the videos. We went online and joined WeChat groups for Kuaishou fans. We observed how they communicate with each other and asked what they thought of their Kuaishou idols.
Once we got to know them, we invited them for interviews. We interviewed 19 broadcast jockeys and 20 frequent viewers. These people hailed from across the country and worked as food stall owners, car mechanics, cooks, and assembly line workers. They are all around 30 years old or younger and relatively tech-savvy.
Sixth Tone: You like to call Kuaishou performers “micro-celebrities.” What do you mean by that?
Tan: Videos often feature people who are unconventional by regular celebrity standards. In her book “Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Media,” media studies scholar Theresa M. Senft defines “micro-celebrities” as people who heighten their popularity over the web using technologies like video, blogs, and social networking sites.
In addition to uploading videos, 16 out of the 19 performers we interviewed are also livestreaming broadcast jockeys. Of these, only one works full-time as a livestreamer. The others do it on a casual basis, spending anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours a day on livestreaming.
Most users are interested in the idea that Kuaishou can earn them money, while some say they do it to showcase their talents and to reach out to fans. Getting rich isn’t their main goal; instead, it’s getting to know more people.
But how do they earn money from their videos? Some use the app to advertise products and services that they provide through their own separately run business. They also may charge third-party companies to embed products in their videos.
Livestreaming is undoubtedly their most direct source of revenue. If a fan likes a broadcast jockey, they can send them dashang — “digital rewards” — purchased with in-app currencies bought with real money. The app then takes a cut from these earnings before transferring the remainder, as real money, to the jockey. A Kuaishou jockey splits their earnings 50-50 with the app company, but Kuaishou’s rival YY takes a whopping 70 percent cut! It’s practically exploitation.
Last year, Lele Tao earned a staggering $470,000 just by chatting and singing to her 1 million fans. Ordinary users obviously earn much less, but it can still exceed their full-time jobs. One of my interviewees said that he earned about 10,000 yuan every month from livestreaming — that’s a respectable salary in China.
Sixth Tone: Why do you say that Kuaishou and other live-streaming apps exploit their broadcast jockeys?
Tan: I call it “exploitation” because jockeys earn money by getting fans to give them virtual presents. This makes sense, because jockeys are entertainers and entertaining others is work.
But on what basis does Kuaishou charge its 50 percent commission? Some people will say that jockeys should pay “rent” to use the app’s servers; maintaining the servers and improving the app all cost money, after all.
But the app’s user agreement says it’s a commission; it’s not rent. It’s like if you wanted to rent a shop, but the landlord says the monthly rent isn’t fixed; rather, it’s half your earnings. Does that sound fair? I don’t think anybody would agree to such absurd terms.
Even if Kuaishou needs to take a cut in order to maintain and improve its hardware and software, the commission shouldn’t exceed 20 or 30 percent. That would be fair, in my opinion.
Sixth Tone: Kuaishou videos are often derided as obscene or depraved. What is the appeal of such content?
Tan: Fans like videos that somehow relate to their real lives. Before we started our research, our colleagues told us that Kuaishou would ruin our worldviews, sense of purpose in life, and moral values. China’s highly educated social elites may find Kuaishou too lowbrow, but they’re not the target audience. Kuaishou’s videos are made by ordinary Chinese and their aesthetics and humor are best appreciated by the 88 percent of China’s population without college education.
The socioeconomic gap between a Kuaishou performer and their viewers is considerably smaller than that between a traditional superstar celebrity and their fans. Here, the idea of so-called cultural intimacy is important. Harvard anthropologist Michael Herzfeld argues that while certain aspects of a cultural identity can be considered sources of external shame, they may nevertheless provide insiders with common solidarity. Similarly, China’s rich, educated elites might treat Kuaishou users with disdain, but their very disdain is what binds the Kuaishou community closer together. Some of us think Kuaishou’s videos are abject, but in the end, they reflect the viewers’ moral outlook.
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Dancers broadcasts a livestream at a park in Zhengzhou, Henan province, Feb. 18, 2017. Li Sixin/VCG)