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Live Video Gets Second Life in China

Millions of Web Celebrities Have Made a Name on YY.

Chinese web platform YY has reinvented live video performance, making stars of men and women who broadcast right from their bedrooms. Viewers pay the performers directly, and surprisingly, it’s rarely sexual. Some say the phenomenon is driven by loneliness, but is that fair?

In the late 1990’s, Jennifer Ringley became the world’s first 24-hour live cam web performer. At the height of her popularity, three to four million people were tuning in every day to watch her eat dinner, chat about her day, study for college courses and yes, engage in sexual acts. But there wasn’t anything particularly sexy about her “performances.” In the same way that Andy Warhol redefined the banal as art, JenniCam was in its own way revolutionary. It arguably paved the platform for reality TV, monetized selfies, and the Kardashian empire. Today, live video is generally associated with seedy porn sites, but in China, streaming video sites like are active as ever.

Launched in 2008 as a chat and voice platform for online gamers to discuss strategy, the site soon found its current purpose as a point of connection between at-home performers and their fans. YY now claims to have more than 10 million live video hosts, and 122 million active monthly users.

Many of the hosts are attractive women, but like Jennifer Ringley, their performances aren’t necessarily sexual. Some sing, dance, tell jokes or do magic tricks; others offer business tips. Some simply provide an interesting visual.  

Viewers can send chat messages to the host, but most importantly: they can send monetary “gifts” in the form of emoticons that appear on screen in real-time. Gifts cost between 1 and 20 yuan, or about 15 cents and $3 USD. YY takes a commission, and the host pockets the remainder.

The site is one of the first streaming video sites to successfully monetize interaction between viewers and hosts, and it’s been incredibly successful. In 2012, the company listed on NASDAQ. Net revenues topped 1.49 billion yuan last year.

One host, Shen Man, performs to an audience of about 15,000 every night. Her monthly earnings from the site total more than 300,000 yuan (about $50,000 USD), according to Xinhua News. For performers who’ve lost hope in succeeding via the traditional avenues of the entertainment industry, the site provides a direct platform that not only boosts exposure, but actually pays.

Internet commentators have suggested that YY’s rise reflects a desperation for connection among younger Chinese Internet users. The rush from interacting with a “celebrity” can be addictive, they say.

But it’s also a genuinely useful platform. A Chinese pharmaceutical company uses YY’s large-scale group video and voice session capabilities to host weekly meetings with more than 2,000 employees around the country.

YY is currently only available in China, but higher-ups have hinted at plans for a global expansion.





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