China’s Digitized Abyss: YY and the Void of Online Fame

Hao Wu’s documentary People’s Republic of Desire explores the dystopia of livestream fandom.

Michael Atkinson November 27, 2018

Chinese livestreamer Shen Man made tens of thousands of dollars per month hosting streams on the social network YY.

It’s still pos­si­ble for a per­son, per­haps of a cer­tain age and pro­cliv­i­ty, to glide along in this coun­try and not be entire­ly sub­sumed by dig­i­tal cul­ture. As a result, many of us are only glanc­ing­ly aware of its true depth and breadth. Read­ing mag­a­zines online, like this one, is a mere toe dipped in a dark ocean of the vir­tu­al world.

It’s the massive number of fans, coupled with the obvious catastrophic loneliness and blind devotionalism, that makes Wu’s film so haunting.

We may not be long for this respite. It’s already van­ish­ing for a huge chunk of Chi­na, as Hao Wu’s new doc­u­men­tary People’s Repub­lic of Desire makes star­tling­ly clear, even as it itself adds to the dig­i­tized abyss. The film wades into a very spe­cif­ic sub­cul­ture thriv­ing in Chi­na, where the country’s migra­to­ry wave, cap­i­tal­ist vora­cious­ness and sud­den wealth have appar­ent­ly dri­ven peo­ple insane.

Meet the live stream­ing host,” a Chi­nese phe­nom­e­non that seems, on the sur­face, akin to Twitch, the huge­ly pop­u­lar, Ama­zon-owned live-gam­ing plat­form. With more than 100 mil­lion view­ers a month, Twitch itself might seem night­mar­ish enough, but at least you’re watch­ing some­thing — a celebri­ty” play­ing a video game. One of the most pop­u­lar stream­ers, Nin­ja, earns over half a mil­lion dol­lars a month.

In Chi­na, by com­par­i­son, on the plat­form YY, the hosts in ques­tion don’t actu­al­ly do much. Sit­ting in tiny, sparse­ly dec­o­rat­ed rooms in front of large micro­phones, they regale their view­ers, some­times telling the occa­sion­al joke or singing the occa­sion­al song. Most­ly, the hosts respond to post­ed com­ments, many of them des­per­ate­ly sex­u­al. It’s not far from livestream­ing porn, the enter­tain­ment val­ue of which is much more obvi­ous. In all cas­es, what’s cru­cial is the real-time inter­ac­tions with fans, from whom dona­tions big and small are relent­less­ly solicit­ed. The hosts ral­ly their devot­ed but-fick­le view­ers (300 mil­lion strong) to send them mon­ey, sim­ply because that’s how the fan­dom is dis­played and sanctified.

In its busy, immer­sive fab­ric, Wu’s film fol­lows sev­er­al work­ing-class fans and tracks how much they spend on their host rela­tion­ships, even con­trast­ing their earn­ings: a fan’s $400 a month ver­sus a host’s $60,000. As you can sense, there’s no effort to put a mask on the subculture’s obses­sion with mon­ey, which mea­sures all things, down to someone’s abil­i­ty to exhib­it vir­tu­al love for a celebri­ty” they’ve nev­er met.

Besides the host and the diaosi (“losers,” an insult the fans appro­pri­at­ed for them­selves), there’s a third cor­ner to this three-way” rela­tion­ship: tuhao, a slang term for China’s new ultra­rich, who lav­ish absurd amounts of mon­ey on the hosts and are wor­shipped on air by name, because of the size of their dona­tions. Poor diao­sis root for the tuhao, too, sim­ply to feel con­nect­ed to this larg­er celebri­ty dynam­ic despite the fact that it’s self-per­pet­u­at­ing, large­ly emp­ty of con­tent and defined entire­ly by mon­ey flow­ing in one direc­tion — toward the host.

Two livestream­ing hosts are fol­lowed in detail: Shen Man, a flir­ta­tious, ear­ly-20s ex-nurse who’s bit­ter­ly sup­port­ing her entire lazy fam­i­ly with her extreme earn­ings and who enter­tains her audi­ence with on-air dis­cus­sions about prospec­tive breast-enlarge­ment surgery, and Big Li, a flab­by, mid-20s come­di­an.” Both are mul­ti­mil­lion­aires, top of their games, but both of their ascen­dant for­tunes are vul­ner­a­ble to the vagaries of fan mass-think and rumor-mon­ger­ing, which can shift in an instant like a mur­mu­rat­ing cloud of starlings.

The film’s sec­ond half takes up with YY’s annu­al host com­pe­ti­tion, which is like a telethon for the already filthy rich. The event trig­gers patho­log­i­cal team spir­it among the fans. 

It’s the mas­sive num­ber of fans, cou­pled with the obvi­ous cat­a­stroph­ic lone­li­ness and blind devo­tion­al­ism, that makes Wu’s film so haunt­ing. (It’s cer­tain­ly not Wu’s headachey visu­al approach, which uses way too much CGI to por­tray the expe­ri­ence of real-time chat-stream­ing cul­ture as a fran­tic, avatar-ani­mat­ed, dis­co-beat Tron world.) 

It doesn’t require a great leap to imag­ine YY and its 300 mil­lion users as the atom­ized, des­o­cial­ized future of human­i­ty: drones born with screens in their hands and buds in their ears, favor­ing vir­tu­al­i­ty over reality’s meat­world,” as the film calls it. In fact, this sce­nario has already played out in an episode of Black Mir­ror, Fif­teen Mil­lion Mer­its,” in which an online pop­u­lar­i­ty con­test destroys the char­ac­ters’ lives. It’s not sci-fi in Wu’s film, where people’s lives are already reduced to an online inter­face, a key­board and a desire to follow.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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