An “Authentic Relationship” through Online Streaming
The rapidly growing number of social media users in new media has contributed to the lucrative industry of live-streaming. In China, live-streaming audiences are mainly consisted of young people. Because these platforms are propagated as tools of modernization and as a means to make a living, more than 100 broadcasts begin at peak times each day. According to South China Morning Post, the live-streaming market of nearly 350 million mobile users as of last year is estimated to be worth $5 billion dollars, a sizable sum for the country’s box office.
As the live-streaming industry becomes more institutionalized due to this robust growth, the success of broadcasters hinges on their interaction with the viewers. According to a senior operations manager in Beijing, presenters need to “demonstrate that they are able to engage with viewers” in order to sustain and grow a strong fan base.
A recent BBC documentary program features Lele Tao, a 24-year-old internet showgirl who chats and sings to her 1 million fans of mostly young men. Poached and managed by one of China’s biggest agents, M.J Entertainment, Lele is trained to “compete with other streamers” by learning to “treat fans like family members.”
“Leading fans will play key roles in the competition,” according to the CEO of her agency. Therefore, online-offline personalities of internet live-stream stars must be skillfully managed, and cases where online relationships are deemed to be less authentic than offline relationships beckon reconsideration.
The book How the World changed Social Media dispels the misleading notion that online relationships “can be contrasted with the ‘real world’” and is inhabited by experiences perceived to be less mediated and thus more authentic. Many cases of the conducted experiments suggest that, where offline relationships are highly mediated by factors such as wealth and social status, online relationships are perceived by users to be more authentic and desirable.
In the case of Lele, the usage of live-streaming as a platform to create different genres of sociality widens the definition of social media as a “scalable sociality.” More specifically, the context of the star-fan relationship seems to viewers as capable of transformation. The presenter is instructed to perceive her fans as family members in a professional framework where such perception appears unlikely.
“She is like a superstar in my mind,” says She Ge, one of Lele’s biggest fans who has showered her with gifts worth over $15,000 since last year. But at the same time, she is to him as “nothing else but a family member, which is very simple.” She Ge’s generosity appears inseparable from the diminishing boundary between online and offline interactions that continue to be exploited. The extended dimension of their dynamic from the product of an online platform to one that defies, in She Ge’s words, “the internet [that] is fragile and money-oriented,” reflects both the streamer’s ability and the user’s desire to “become themselves and relate to others.”