Time isn't money: what the monetisation of livestreaming tells us about the new Chinese workforce

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Recent years have seen the rise of new forms of financial interaction across Western markets. As was highlighted in issue 1 of The Frame, Flamingo’s new quarterly cultural trends report, social selling platforms like Depop and payment services like Venmo are blurring the boundaries between cash, money and tokens. Within the context of economic and political instability, these new forms of transaction signal a shift towards a more transparent approach to personal finance and a consumer-led drive for easy ways to spend – and earn – money from personal devices.

 In China, livestreaming culture has incubated a similar phenomenon, but with a different focus. While in the UK social commerce tends to facilitate the exchange of cash for goods and experiences, in China it has manifested as the monetisation of live-streaming. Apps like Haujiao (花椒) and Weibo-integrated Yizhibo (一直播) provide a platform for influencers – ranging from gamers to educators to online sellers – to broadcast to fans in a similar way to Instagram’s ‘Live’ feature. But these apps differentiate themselves from Western equivalents in that they facilitate ‘gifting’. In this context, gifting refers to the purchase of platform-specific tokens, which are acquired by a viewer before being given to a chosen influencer, who can then redeem this token for cash. From a business perspective, this monetisation has driven explosive category growth: live-streaming is expected to reach a value of 112 billion RMB by 2020 – four times its 2016 value – making it an increasingly lucrative business.

 This is a far more direct approach to compensation than Western forms of social media marketing, where consumers must, for example, purchase through affiliate links in order for their favourite influencer to be compensated for their efforts. By cutting out corporate intermediaries, it’s possible for Chinese influencers to make significant amounts of money; top users of app YingKe (映客) earned 121,000 RMB in March 2019 alone. And influencers are set to get richer; given that host platforms earn a small commission for each transaction, new means of driving audiences to gift are regularly being introduced. Recent additions include a ‘battle’ feature, whereby two influencers go head-to-head to see who can receive the most gifts within a set time limit, encouraging viewers to spend money for no tangible benefit aside from the knowledge that their favourite influencer won an online battle.

 In a culture that has historic associations with demanding career expectations – exemplified by the ‘996’ working week – the widespread popularisation of livestreaming as a viable earning opportunity signals a shift away from the traditional jobs structure. Understandably, younger generations are reconsidering their options; why engage in a job that requires the completion of long training and progression periods when more money can be earned more quickly and more easily online? Some influencers have even been known to earn money while asleep; last year saw the explosion of a rumour that Chinese actress Fan Bing Bing’s brother made 4.8 million RMB overnight, after posting an ad on social media.

Unsurprisingly, members of the future workforce are reconsidering their priorities - questioning whether the outcomes of a strenuous working life are worth the detrimental impact on their mental wellbeing. Increasingly, it isn’t good enough for Chinese employers to compensate their young workforce using a typical salary structure, and this shift means that we’re seeing a form of role reversal. Where relationships between young social media users are becoming ever more transactional in nature, businesses and employers are increasingly expected to be more ‘human’. Now more than ever, consumers want to both spend and earn money without artifice; through transparent transactions founded on honest relationships.

Jas Tang and Siobhan Collman, Flamingo 


Milly Liechti