The World of Chinese - - Editor's Letter - BY DAVID DAW­SON

The term “cur­rency” con­jures up im­ages of ban­knotes and coins, but it has not al­ways been thus. Most cul­tures ini­tially be­gan with bar­ter­ing be­fore mov­ing on to pre­cious met­als then even­tu­ally notes. Now, in the age of bit­coin and Wechat Wal­let, a cu­ri­ous form of cur­rency has emerged which ties to­gether the most mod­ern ideas of elec­tronic cur­rency with the im­agery of barter, and this cur­rency lives only in the niche world of on­line live stream­ing.

Live stream­ing is, as you would ex­pect, footage streamed on on­line web­sites, with the caveat that the ac­tion oc­curs in real time. Many of the first live-stream­ing plat­forms be­gan by stream­ing footage of on­line mul­ti­player games to fans. From e-sports, it evolved to in­clude reg­u­lar sports, then singers and other on­line celebri­ties started per­form­ing live as well. The live-stream­ing sec­tor in China is far more var­ied and pop­u­lar than in the West, per­haps, some­what iron­i­cally, due to the on­line re­stric­tions on lewd con­tent. Cao Xi, a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist with Se­quoia Cap­i­tal, told The Wall Street Journal that “in a coun­try where porn isn’t avail­able, this mar­ket is pretty good.”

One thing many of th­ese live-stream­ers have in com­mon is that they re­ceive much of their in­come from “vir­tual gifts.” The gifts them­selves may be any­thing from flow­ers, to a sports car. They ap­pear as an emoti­con sent from viewer to live-streamer, who in turn can re­deem it for cash. Cru­cially, ev­ery­one view­ing the live-stream­ing ses­sion can see them. The higher the value, the greater the recog­ni­tion for the per­son who sent the gift. Savvy live-stream­ers know how to play to their au­di­ences and re­ward reg­u­lar gift-givers with at­ten­tion with­out alien­at­ing other view­ers.

In the fourth quar­ter of 2015,, a pop­u­lar live-stream­ing site, raked in 1.5 billion RMB (230 mil­lion USD) from vir­tual gifts. Live-stream­ing web­site com­pa­nies only take a small per­cent­age of each vir­tual gift’s worth, so the ac­tual RMB value of the vir­tual gifts sent dur­ing this pe­riod would be much, much higher.

The live-stream­ing vir­tual gift phe­nom­e­non is now spread­ing from China to the US.

Us-based com­pany an­nounced in Oc­to­ber of 2016 that it had pro­cessed 1 mil­lion USD worth of vir­tual gifts. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive from—a com­pany which is bring­ing the livestream­ing phe­nom­e­non to the Us—told TWOC that when launched, in April 2016, it was geared to­ward a pri­mar­ily English-speak­ing au­di­ence.

“ is the high­est gross­ing live-broad­cast­ing app ever in the US,” Khu­dor An­nous, head of mar­ket­ing at, pointed out. He de­scribed vir­tual gifts as “a bit of emoji, gam­ing, and tip­ping, all rolled into a fun way for view­ers to join in the con­ver­sa­tion and col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. Vir­tual gifts, more than just just tip­ping some­one a dollar, re­ally show the broad­caster that you want to be no­ticed and con­trib­ute to the mo­ment, hap­pen­ing right now.”

The streams of aren’t nec­es­sar­ily rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a lot of live stream­ing in the West, how­ever. Much of the Western com­mu­nity is dom­i­nated by “cam girls” or out­right pornog­ra­phy, but in China, there are all kinds of would-be celebri­ties ped­dling any num­bers of dif­fer­ent acts from their liv­ing rooms, and turn­ing it into rev­enue in the form of “vir­tual gifts.”

They may make their ca­reer based on be­ing funny or be­ing at­trac­tive, or pos­si­bly live stream to build on ex­ist­ing fame or as a con­tract obli­ga­tion, as was the case with the en­dear­ingly down-to-earth Olympic swim­mer Fu Yuan­hui. The medium has re­cently broad­ened into shopping channels

rem­i­nis­cent of day­time in­fomer­cials, though the more ac­tive na­ture of view­ing live stream­ing means par­tic­i­pants are even more en­gaged than their TV coun­ter­parts, thus even bet­ter tar­gets for ad­ver­tis­ing.

There are still porno­graphic live-stream­ers of course, but they are in­ter­mit­tently shut down and pun­ished by the au­thor­i­ties, and there have been in­stances of some­what ab­surd re­stric­tions like a ban on eat­ing ba­nanas se­duc­tively.

Techn­ode re­ported that, op­er­ated by a com­pany called Tiange, was among the first live-stream­ing sites to adopt the vir­tual gift model. Tiange spe­cial­izes in am­a­teur singers, but crit­ics point out that its livestream­ers are over­whelm­ingly fe­male, and its user base is over­whelm­ingly male and in third or fourth tier cities. Th­ese fuel claims it is bor­der­line porno­graphic, though the ge­o­graph­i­cal and gen­der as­pects also give th­ese crit­i­cisms a cer­tain air of elitism.

The par­tic­i­pa­tory element makes vir­tual gifts a fas­ci­nat­ing development for com­pa­nies. Not only can it be mon­e­tized, but it’s a way of mea­sur­ing both en­gage­ment from view­ers and how much money they are send­ing to a par­tic­u­lar live-streamer, thus defin­ing the per­form­ers’ worth in cold, hard cash.

In­comes made through th­ese vir­tual gifts vary. While the dream is to make mil­lions, a re­port in Sohu En­ter­tain­ment pointed out that it is in­cred­i­bly rare for a live-stream­ing celebrity to make this much, though an­nual in­comes in the tens of thou­sands, even oc­ca­sion­ally hun­dreds of thou­sands, are much more com­mon. The re­port also pro­filed a live-stream celebrity who goes by the on­line han­dle Xiang Gong (相公). Her prod­uct is “cute­ness.”

Per­son­al­i­ties like Xiang Gong’s re­quire ex­ten­sive use of makeup and for per­form­ers to put on a type of sajiao (co­quet­tish­ness, for lack of a bet­ter English term) act. The ar­ti­cle also pointed out that many of th­ese live-stream­ing celebri­ties don’t like to talk about their day job, due to the fact it is some­times as­so­ci­ated with sex work—even though the strict reg­u­la­tions mean this is rarely true.

The fact that dat­ing app Momo has also em­braced live stream­ing and vir­tual gifts also opens up an­other facet of the vir­tual-gift game. With the po­ten­tial for a date ac­tu­ally on the ta­ble, and users able to scan for live chat-room par­tic­i­pants us­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal prox­im­ity, the ways in which Momo is able to in­te­grate vir­tual gifts with its dat­ing plat­form will be keenly ob­served by com­pa­nies as well as the au­thor­i­ties.

Per­haps the big­gest les­son to be drawn from the en­tire livestream­ing in­dus­try is how lone­li­ness in the dark of night is a pow­er­ful mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor. Ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Con­nie Chan, a part­ner at An­dreessen Horowitz, has pointed out in ob­ser­va­tions of China’s livestream­ing in­dus­try that the vast ma­jor­ity of live-stream view­ers log on late at night, most likely to al­le­vi­ate a sense of lone­li­ness with a feel­ing kin­ship.

At the end of the day, be­yond the bil­lions to be made by large com­pa­nies, send­ing a vir­tual gift may not be all that dif­fer­ent to send­ing any other gift: a sim­ple act of gen­eros­ity sent in the hope of buy­ing grat­i­tude.


On­line host­ess Xiang Gong checks her makeup be­fore she gives a live broad­cast in her bed­room in Bei­jing A dig­i­tal gift is seen on the screen, bought and pre­sented by a fan

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