Social media, built up as an opportunity to create new human connections, has often had the opposite effect. It has been used as a tool for surveillance, and increasingly seems to host and fester angry and hateful subcultures. Live streaming has become one of the fastest-growing methods of online connectivity, and has just as quickly become a temple of human loneliness. In China, through platforms like Yizhibo and Huajiao, it is swiftly becoming a dominant force in screen culture. This phenomenon has been the subject of several recent films, including Dragonfly Eyes (2017), People’s Republic of Desire (2018), and Present.Perfect, the last of which recently screened at the Montreal International Documentary Festival.
People’s Republic of Desire examines the world of idols and contests on a popular streaming site called YY. Focusing on the lives of streamers and their adoring fans, the film showcases a new kind of fame under a different lens. These new stars are not only interacting directly with their fanbase, but are (theoretically) self-made and beyond the control and influence of corporations. In this direct address and this sense of attainability, a false closeness is built between viewer and host. As a user’s favorite streamer catapults in fame, they will increasingly feel pressure to offer them monetary gifts to gain attention. In the film, some of the most successful streamers make over $100,000 a month. We see people spending whatever disposable income they have for a shoutout or an acknowledgement from their favorite internet star. Many of these viewers desperate, isolated, lonely men who spend most of their waking hours working.
What is more surprising is how solitary the world of streaming is as well. Increased viewership doesn’t alleviate a sense of alienation for most hosts, but instead enhances it. A lot of the most popular channels are run by young women. Some are pushed to pursue surgery to look better, and as they realize they can make money, they start spending more in the hopes of increasing their earning potential, often outspending their earnings. Many use said earnings to support their families, some of whom financially and psychologically abuse them. The pressure to perform and succeed is incredibly high. The emotional weight of being beholden to thousands of people without ever making a real, intimate connection hangs over them like a shroud. The competitive nature of their platform also eliminates the possibility that streamers might find solace in each other. Someone else’s success represents your potential failure.
Shengze Zhu’s Present.Perfect showcases a much different side of live streaming. The various subjects are what Western audiences might know as IRL streamers. Rather than perform talents for tips, they broadcast the intimacies of their lives. They work, they play, and mostly, they talk. Zhu has selected the kinds of people who are rarely represented on screen, marginalized for their bodies and social status. Through these platforms, a single mom working in a textile factory or a badly burned man can be seen. There is sometimes a sense that we are watching people we shouldn’t, even though they’re the ones who switch on the cameras and interact with us directly. Live streaming becomes a tool for them to control how the world sees them. These characters seem to take pleasure in watching themselves as much as they want to be viewed. It’s oversimplifying to think of it as narcissism, when it’s more of an affirmation of their existence. In a world that treats them as invisible or cannot come to terms with their humanity, the internet allows them to affirm a sense of self. “To live is better than to die,” says the burned man.
Yet this empowerment does little to assuage their loneliness. Another man who suffers from a kind of dwarfism is first introduced performing on the street for money. He smiles broadly and continually talks about his handsomeness. Later, in his nondescript apartment, he talks to his viewers about his brother, who was supposed to come to dinner. “I’ve never eaten dinner so slow,” he says as he explains how his brother was over an hour late to eat. Even now, the man says, he hasn’t shown up. He restlessly moves around the apartment, performing like he doesn’t care that he’s been stood up.
Is that solitude deepened by social media, or merely exaggerated? In the sprawling landscape of China, it is thought that at least 100 million people watch live streaming channels in some capacity. It is the fastest-growing market in the world, and its effects and importance in culture are currently unquantifiable. The uninterrupted nature of live streaming also offers its own dread. With IRL streams in particular, there are no edits in the traditional sense. A camera movement or an interruption can serve the same purpose as an edit, and in the process of turning a stream on and then off, we have at least two instances of cutting. Even when the camera is off, the banality of the streams themselves implies a pervasive feeling of unease. Life continues even as the cameras are turned off, and loneliness feeds itself.