Zhibo: Ten Thousand Down, a Billion to Go — What I’ve Learned So Far

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12:00 AM HKT, Tue September 12, 2017 6 mins read

Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe. If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.

It seems like it’s becoming something of a tradition for me to open with an observation that I find exciting and most everyone else figured out 5-6 posts ago, so here goes: it has recently come to my attention that a few people might actually read this column because they want to learn more about Chinese live streaming (rather than the pseudo-intellectual tangents I keep managing to just-barely connect to live streaming).

It has furthermore (and slightly more directly) been brought to my attention that there are more than a few foreigners in China who are actually interested in trying zhibo (livestreaming) for themselves and would rather read helpful hints than look at collages of my confused-looking face sporting a wide variety of fake ray-bans.

pictured: hard-hitting journalism

This coincides nicely with the fact that I recently hit 10,000 on the ol’ fan counter and in fact have stumbled my way onto the #1 spot on the app for the past few days running. I’m aware of how badly I’m tempting fate here, but I thought I’d take advantage of my currently over-inflated ego and share with you what little I’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t on the live-streaming platform 映客 (yingke, Inke — but you know that by now, right?).

…I must be doing something right

Point #1: Play music (or sing, or both!)

As any good dating profile can tell you, most people like music; or at least, most people who lived before what I can only assume historians will refer to as the Great “Look What You Made Me Do War” of 2017.

Moreover, people are genuinely interested in knowing what kind of music you might be into; it’s not that we’re anything special, but when you hardly ever talk to foreigners and are constantly exposed to Western culture, you’re going to be naturally interested in what a real human being from outside of China thinks about your favorite songs and artists.

You can play a selection of KTV (karaoke) tracks in the app if your Chinese pop song knowledge is on point, or simply play music from a speaker near your phone — as long as there’s an audible song and your speaking voice is reasonably balanced, it’ll be fine. There’s also the option of buying one of the many external sound cards flooding the market so you can pump music and sound effects directly into your stream from an external source and use a real microphone instead of the earbud mic. I’d caution against this: a great sound setup can enhance a stream that people already like but I don’t get the sense that it can summon an audience from the ether.

no word yet on the effectiveness of ritual sacrifice

Being a (very unprofessional) musician, I already owned most of the necessary equipment and got really into the idea that I would create a professional radio-style stream with a proper mic, sound effects, etc, but quickly abandoned the idea and haven’t looked back. The improved setup didn’t draw a bigger audience; it just mildly impressed the small audience I already had. I might revisit this in the future, but my best advice to anyone starting out is to focus on what you are like, not the sound quality of a stream that, at the end of the day, most people are watching on their phones without headphones anyway.

To put it another way, don’t waste money on amplification until you have something worth amplifying.

On the topic of things worth amplifying: sing. Trust me, the bar is so low that [insert joke about digging to China here]. Absolutely everyone asks you to sing — if you can sing something in Chinese, you’ve got appeal. If you can sing in both Chinese and English, you’re golden. Turn up the reverb, pretend you’re in the shower, and remember that it’s a lot easier to sing to an audience that you can’t actually see.

gotta give the people what they want

Point #2: Have an interesting (and varied) environment

An interesting background is definitely a plus. I don’t stream from home all that much any more, but the first time I ever managed to get a decent-sized audience was when I started sitting on the couch with my American flag and Chinese flag side-by-side on the wall behind me. You’d think that having an American flag in my username and a giant version right behind me would stem the tide of “where are you from?” questions, but no such luck — on the bright side, it opens up all kinds of comic opportunities when it comes to answering those questions.

though sometimes “sigh” doesn’t quite cut it

On a somewhat-related note, people constantly ask me if I’m in an embassy or work for one (it seems that’s the only reason there could be flags from multiple countries). After I say no, the question becomes WHY I would have flags on my wall. When feeling charitable and/or corny, I respond that I care about the future of Chinese-American relations (I mean, I do, but that doesn’t make it any less corny); when I’m feeling honest, I tell them I hate my plain white walls.

Either way, it’s an icebreaker and attention-grabber.

The real turning point for me, however, was when I started streaming in small doses while out and about. Quiet corners of cafes, parks, and walks to and from the subway were what made streaming feel like a fun way to liven up a commute or take a break rather than a new variety of Chinese homework.

Warning: If you’re streaming constantly on 4g, you’d best factor the cost of data into your big plans to make your fortune on YingKe.

Point #3: Get a nice/funny/interesting/attractive profile picture

Standard Tinder rules apply: just getting the click is half the battle. Of course, this loops us back to the common theme of “you probably shouldn’t listen to me because as a white American male pretty much everything in my life has been handed to me on a silver platter,” but really any non-East-Asian-looking person is going to stand out like a beautiful sore thumb on YingKe. Of course, this is by nature a superficial selection process — if you (or your profile pic) are on the better-looking side, more people will be interested in clicking on it.

That being said, there’s also clear value in humor, and I think that once again, Tinder rules apply: drawing interest is more important than straight-up attractiveness. I’ve noticed that guys on the app tend to lean more towards the funny/dynamic/otherwise eye-catching pictures more than just trying to smolder directly into the camera — the audience that’s purely there to look at hot people is overwhelming pointed in the other direction, after all. If you have a talent to show off (piano, weight-lifting, juggling, whatever works), I’d strongly suggest a picture that gives people a preview of coming attractions.

[someone please remind me to take my own advice sometime and move on from “dude in suit looks at camera”]

Point #4: Eat

This is getting its own post soon enough. Suffice to say, the Chinese streaming audience has an… overly-developed fascination with watching hosts consume food and beverages. For fear of leading people down a super creepy path, I cannot recommend this until learning more about it. Stay tuned.

Points #5-1,000: Have a good (likable) attitude!

At the end of the day, YingKe is about simple (if weird) human interaction. The initial click may be half the battle, but the other half is being enough of an appealing human to get people to stick around, share, and come back for more. If you’re insanely attractive or super talented in some regard, that might be enough — but for the rest of us mortals, a bit of likability goes a long way.

And trust me, for all my natural advantages (see: hair, skin, eyes, demographic novelty, dumb course selection, lack of better employment prospects, etc), this is one case where if I can do it, anyone can. I am not anyone’s idea of a natural people person; I’m negative, overly critical of both myself and others, and manage to both talk too much when I shouldn’t and not enough when I should. But for a social incompetent like myself, streaming is a dream come true: I don’t have to hear or see anyone and I get literal direct feedback on whether people like me or don’t like me in the form of cold hard numbers (and cash) at any given moment.

So am I working my way towards any actionable advice here?

If I have any to give, it’s this: Be humble and self-deprecating to a fault, be funny, and never, ever, EVER get genuinely indignant (joking is fine, but it’s a fine line).

I don’t care how good you think your Chinese is – even if you’ve passed the lesser-known HSK 7, the Chinese internet can confuse you as quickly as it wants to. And if, as in my case, you’re there primarily because your Chinese isn’t very good, you’re going to be lost constantly. Asking for help isn’t just good in the sense of being a better human; I’m not exaggerating when I say there’s a direct correlation between my admitting confusion or ignorance and positive feedback (and gifts) from the audience. Top that off with self-deprecating humor (“sorry I forgot your name, you know a foreigner’s brain can only store a few Chinese names at a time, right?”) and you’ve got a recipe that large swaths of the Chinese streaming audience will very much enjoy.

Moving Forward

That’s all I’ve really got for now. Personally, I’d like to move into the realm of more interesting activities — workouts, cooking (not eating!), more types of music, and definitely more domestic travel when I can find the time. If you DO start (or have already started) getting into the world of 直播, let me know!

Now go forth and irritate as many people as you can from the comfort of your phone.

Next Week: Engaging with the YK community!

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