Thursday, Jun 29, 2017, 4:56 AM CST – China

Society

Live-streaming Apps

VIRTUAL FRIENDS, REAL LONELINESS

The instant success of ‘17,’ a newly launched live-streaming app, underscores the epidemic of loneliness afflicting today’s young, urban Chinese

Live broadcaster working for a company in Fuyang, Anhui Province, December 7, 2015 Photo by CFP

Dressed in a revealing bikini top, Han Lu grabbed her smartphone, opened the app “17” and focused the camera on herself. She was fulfilling a promise she had made to her followers the day before, to give them a bikini-clad show.

A flood of real-time comments and requests popped up on her cellphone screen. “Hi babe, which floor do you live on?” One man asked. As a response, she walked out to the balcony, flipped the camera so it focused on the night scene outside and murmured, “Can you guess?”

“Lower your phone. I want to see more of you,” another man requested. Han Lu smiled and obliged him. Perhaps she was motivated by the fact that the more followers she accrues on 17, the more money she can make from it. But when her fans made more explicit requests, the 26-year-old declined.

This is a typical tableau for 17 app users. A young woman starts a live-stream to share a slice of her life through her smartphone camera, which attracts a horde of viewers who flock to her page, check her out, “like” her stream, share it, leave comments and make requests.

Since Taiwanese-American celebrity Jeffrey Huang’s company launched the app on June 5, 2015, 17 has gone viral in China and other Asian countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia. Similar to its international equivalents like Periscope and Meerkat, 17 allows users to live-stream footage right from their cellphones while viewers chat with them in real time. The app topped the Chinese App Store’s list of top free apps on September 25, less than four months after its debut. It has 2.2 million registered accounts, and 700,000 to 900,000 active users who check the app every day.

Just a few days after topping the charts, however, 17 was suddenly removed by the App Store without warning on September 29, staying down for about a month before it popped back up on virtual shelves. It performed a similar vanishing act in the Google Play store as well. The reason for its temporary disappearance, while not stated officially by Apple or Google, may seem obvious to users – it crossed a line, venturing into illegal territory, with some users producing X-rated content that attracted packs of voyeurs to register for their own accounts. Some live-streamers broadcast themselves or others stripping, taking baths, taking drugs and even performing sex acts in real time for an audience of thousands watching from home.

Voyeuristic curiosity and desire for attention are part of human nature, and 17 satisfies both needs. In China, it fills other emotional voids as well; its success is a reflection of urban Chinese youths’ need to cope with overwhelming feelings of loneliness and emptiness.

The Lonely Youth

There are 668 million Chinese people online, a staggering number that is more than twice the US’s total population. Though many international social networking sites and apps – WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr – are either blocked or scarcely used in China, Chinese netizens still rack up the screen time with domestic equivalents like WeChat, Sina Weibo, QQ and Douban.

In China, teenagers and young adults who have been raised in the Internet age are the most active social media users. According to a 2014 report by China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), there are 277 million Chinese teenagers and young adults (people aged under 25) online, about 41.5 percent of the total number of Chinese Internet users. Social media provides a platform that allows these young netizens to create groups and pages based on common interests, and helps them stay connected and interact even if they are miles apart.

The expansion of social media in China, nevertheless, has coincided with a growing feeling of loneliness, especially among young people living in big cities where technology and development have sped up the pace of life. The CNNIC report says that 72.1 percent of China’s online youth come from urban areas, especially the country’s largest cities. 58.4 percent of the young netizens have shown a “strong reliance” on the Internet, while 13 percent say they are “extremely dependent” or “addicted.”

Young people’s dependence on the Internet has affected their offline, face-to-face interactions to different degrees. Lee Ngan-Tse, a young, introverted woman from Hong Kong, seems to find a certain solace in virtual companionship. Like thousands of lonely, urban youth, she does not have many friends. Her old high school friends are now too busy to keep in touch, either because of new marriages or new jobs. Her daily, face-to-face social contact is fairly superficial, mainly limited to small talk with her boss and colleagues. Thus, she has turned to the digital world to find friends. Her usual shift as a sales representative is from 12 PM to 11 PM, and when she gets home, she spends almost all of her time on 17, interacting with her fellow app users.

“It’s like chatting with my closest friends,” Lee told NewsChina. “They think I’m entertaining them, and I am quite pleased to do so. Giving others joy always makes me happy.”

The longest live-stream session she has held lasted more than five hours; she broadcast herself singing songs from about 2 AM until daybreak. She couldn’t sleep that night, so she opened the app in her dark bedroom, logging on amongst other insomnia-ridden night owls like herself. “I asked them to request songs, and they did,” she told NewsChina. “So I kept singing one song after another for over five hours, until 7 AM.” She also once streamed herself watching a TV comedy show late at night, an experience she shared with her online friends. “We chatted together and laughed together. Without us even realizing, it was suddenly light outside,” she said.

When 21-year-old college student Gao Xiang was asked why he uses the app, he replied: “I don’t want to be lonely.” When Gao was young, his parents, who both worked, usually kept him locked up at home to “keep him safe.” This experience of being confined at home cut down on his ability to connect with the outside world, and thus loneliness became his constant companion that followed him even when he left home for college. He said that watching live-streams helps him learn more about different people’s lives, but he admitted that loneliness is what really drives his 17 addiction.

Zou Nan likes showing off her cat, Minnie, on the app. She left her hometown, Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, a year ago to come to Shanghai and work as a bank teller. Without her friends and relatives from back home, the 23-year-old often felt lonely and depressed. To keep these feelings at bay, she bought Minnie.

Several months ago, Zou downloaded 17 and shared her first video, one of Minnie drinking a bowl of hot milk. That clip received many “likes” and funny comments, which made her quite happy and encouraged her to stream more cat videos. In less than two months’ time, Zou had more than 700 followers on the app. “It feels so good to have a group of friends online who wait for you [to log on], chat with you and listen to you,” she said.

The Next Toy

IT industry insider Chen Jianwen told NewsChina that live-streaming will most likely become the next big social media trend. Compared with the now commonplace features of texting, audio-messaging, and photo- and video-sharing, Chen said that it is live-streaming that will become the next essential function for social networking tools to include.

The promotional slogans and language surrounding various social media apps, to a great extent, capture attention by focusing on modern psychological ailments such as loneliness, emptiness and the desperate need for attention. With promotional lines like “Your life’s moments,” the language used to describe 17 gives users the illusion that using the app will allow them to share their lives through close, warm and satisfying social contact.

But does using social media really make people more sociable?

The reality is that many Chinese young people today have found that the more connected they become online, the lonelier they feel in reality.

Lee Ngan-Tse admitted she is addicted to social media. But she was not always such an active social media user. It was breaking up with her ex-boyfriend that initiated this change. After their relationship ended, Lee became more and more actively engaged in social networking, posting perfectly posed selfies and always keeping up with her followers. “I just wanted him to see that I was very happy every day. I wanted him to know that I was much better off without him!” Lee told NewsChina.

Her constant posts were effective. The number of people following her on Facebook skyrocketed, shooting from 400 to over 4,000. She even gained more than 20,000 followers on Instagram. The online recognition, however, did not help her dispel the loneliness she felt that stemmed from her lack of real companionship. So she turned to 17, in a Sisyphean attempt to once again find solace through a social networking platform.

“But I still always feel detached,” she said.

The technology itself does not cause loneliness. WeChat, Sina Weibo, Facebook and 17 are not antisocial in nature. It is the obsessive dependence on technology that causes loneliness and emptiness among many young Chinese. Forging genuine emotional bonds takes more than a text message or an emoji. “The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are,” John Cacioppo, University of Chicago psychology professor, guest professor at Beijing Normal University and author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, told The Atlantic. “The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are.” 

Shi Zishan, a 26-year-old who works in a Fortune 100 corporation’s Beijing office, insists on keeping social media at a reasonable distance. He texts his friends through WeChat and reads news headlines on Sina Weibo, but he seldom posts about his life on social networking sites or apps.

Shi refuses to use 17 because he believes too much exposure through live-streaming might endanger one’s personal security and privacy. And he has little interest in online interaction with strangers. Resorting to social networking is not a remedy to the prevalent feeling of loneliness affecting urban youth, he said.

“Everyone who lives in a big city like Beijing will, to some extent, feel kind of lonely,” he said. “But the way to get rid of this sense of loneliness is to maintain positive daily contact with people you’re close to, rather than seeking attention from strangers online.”

“The people I know who feel the most lonely are usually the ones who are most active online.” Shi added. “They have numerous friends on various social networks, they have hundreds of people liking and commenting on their photos, but they never feel [like it’s] enough.”

Chen Jianwen suggested that, as long as urbanites continue to feel lonely, empty and in need of attention, the market for social networking apps will continue to thrive. When 17 was temporarily removed from the Apple Store, hundreds of thousands of users soon latched onto another streaming app, “Easy Live,” as a replacement. “When there is a need, a product will appear,” Chen said.

“17 is a toy I use for chatting.” Lee Ngan-Tse said. She has acquired thousands of followers on the app who make up a loyal audience. She finds the virtual midnight companionship they provide fun and comforting, but, the next morning, she still wakes up alone, goes out the door, and exchanges niceties with her boss and colleagues. “I am always waiting for a new gadget, a much more interesting toy,” she said. 

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