“Have you eaten? Love you. Kiss kiss. Welcome to Showroom 2391.”Shen Man
Watching the documentary, People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018), was like being on safari and watching an alien ecosystem interact. Being an insider on all sides of the streaming experience provided a surreal but extremely informative experience not only on digital culture in Asia, but also the internal social and cultural structures within the streaming industry. These attributes highlighted by the digital nature of streaming show many aspects of modern Chinese social interactions and the roots of many values imbedded in that ethnicity. The equilibrium of the digital chat rooms, video streams and online competitions rests on the shoulders of a food chain, where the companies and the idol streamers they control sit at the top, followed by tuhao fans and then the bottom most rung of diaosi fans. The diaosi fans contribute a little in terms of money and donation, existing to praise the richer and money splashing tuhao fans; who ultimately benefit and push up the idols and streamers. In the documentary the director estimates that tuhao fans account for 80% of a star’s earnings, while regular fans account for the other 20%.
This brave new world, full of beauteous people, simultaneously terrified and bewitched me; aptly earning a comparison to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Hosts, idols and streamers act like magicians, pulling smoke and mirrors around them to create a dynamic that begs for donations and attention alike. Even as the hosts crash and burn into controversy, unpopularity or failure; their face to face connection with their audiences encapsulates a must-watch atmosphere. The two streamers the documentary focuses on are comedian Big Li and singer Shen Man, opposing but similar entertainers who are navigating the turbulent sea of the online world. When watching, as I reflected in my live tweeting, the levels of confusion I felt at their perusal of such a seemingly painful but lucrative career. Chinese society has long had a focus on material wealth and the glorification of attaining a social status as a ‘rich’ person, which was made obvious when observing the social interactions that occurred online between hosts and their fans. The hosts have a rags to riches story, but the immense stress and social scrutiny of existing in the digital ecosystem filled me with a deep sense of dread and uneasiness.
Watching grown men and women cry over an amount of online votes, seeing them completely breakdown, loose their real world connections and relationships over digital fans and competitions is concerning. However, this changing and emerging way of digital social interaction does have redemptive arcs, offering a medium for human interaction and connection that can have a positive effect on people’s lives. I believe that this digital community and the emergence of this online landscape are part of the future of entertainment and communication; as well as being necessary in the changing interactions between the physical and digital worlds. As the global pandemic has made painstakingly obvious, we need our online connections more than ever; and watching the YY stars in China navigate this sets the stage for the evolutions of this industry. Our lives are becoming more digital, for better or worse, and the challenge remains to stay afloat on the online sea, achieving balance and spreading positivity in our lives.