New Documentary Explores the Dark Side of China's Massively Popular Livestream Industry

Over the years, we’ve covered some stuff that seemed straight out of a cyberpunk novel, from technology that may allow you to control AR/VR with your mind to the news that NASA may be seeking brand deals to sponsor its space missions. This new documentary from filmmaker Hao Wu, titled People’s Republic of Desire, takes the cake, however: according to Motherboard, it explores the lives of young people who have risen to fame and fortune by livestreaming their lives to millions of fans on the Chinese social media platform YY, providing a lonely, poor generation with the illusion of human contact.

If you’re still not convinced, check out the trailer:

Yeah, what you’re looking at is the livestreaming equivalent of content mills, populated by dozens and dozens of young people who are trying to turn their personality into a commodity to be consumed by a sea of faceless fans in a rapidly saturating market. Similar to the incredibly restrictive and controlled world of K-Pop stars or Japanese idols, many of these wannabe livestream celebrities are associated with an agency that takes a large portion of their profits. The same goes for YY, which takes a cut.

Though some of the most successful livestreamers can make tens of thousands of dollars a month from fan donations, one of the major figures of the documentary, livestreamer Shen Man, has said that money hasn’t made her happy. According to her, “When I think about it, I feel disconnected from society. I don’t go out or even see the sun.”

In an interview with Motherboard, director Hao Wu said: “They feel very trapped by the internet. On the one hand, they’ve made a lot of money and can support their families. On the other hand, they’re miserable because they don’t have any real life friends. All they have is online connections, which may or may not be real.”

The weirdest thing of all? Few people know about this livestreaming phenomenon outside of China. Even Wu was surprised by it, saying: “I was really shocked because I had never heard about the company [YY] before.”

You can learn more about the film here.