Chinese live-streaming services have been gaining traction in China in recent years, even more so than their European and North American counterparts, such as Twitch.tv , Facebook Live, and YouTube Live. More than half the Internet users in China regularly use live-streaming services such as Douyu, Huya, YY, Kuaishou, Douyin, and Bilibili. Due to its growing popularity, live streaming has even become a profession in China . Professional streamers can make a living from streaming: Dedicated viewers purchase virtual gifts for them, and other support includes training or promotion from streamer guilds and agencies . This article summarizes results from my previous studies on live streaming in China that highlight how live streamers in China are providing content not only for entertainment, but also for knowledge sharing and cultural heritage preservation. We highlight streamer and viewer motivations, streaming practices, and the challenges currently facing streamers. We believe that lessons learned from live streaming in China can provide a blueprint for the future of live-streaming services in other countries.
According to a mixed-method study we conducted that included a survey and interviews with regular live-streaming users , besides video gaming and performance live streams, live streams about sharing and acquiring knowledge are among the most popular and engaging genres in China. These live streams differ from the Ask Me Anything—style ones on Twitch in that they are more like lectures or training sessions, where the streamer talks about the topic, demonstrating the procedure or showing essential information using slides or a whiteboard. Most streamers of this genre also seek to provide daily or weekly streams. They are often considered to be experts, even though they might be unaffiliated with traditional formal learning institutions . One representative subcategory of such live streams is traditional cultural art forms and artifacts, often called intangible cultural heritage (ICH)—for example, Chinese calligraphy and dough figurines (Figure 1). We further interviewed knowledge-sharing streamers, ICH streamers, and their viewers to gain insights about how live streaming should be improved to better support knowledge sharing [5,6].
|Figure 1. Screenshots of live streams about dough figurines (left) and Chinese calligraphy [right) on Kuaishou.|
Knowledge-sharing live streams in China involve a diverse range of topics, including formal knowledge (e.g., language learning, graduate-school entrance-exam preparation, college-level mathematics, psychology, finance and investing, science and technology) and informal knowledge (e.g., cooking, interview skills, health and fitness, social skills, pick-up lines, career planning, finance and investment, antique evaluation, skin care, outdoor activities, traveling, baby care, DIY) . Cooking is especially popular, due to the complexity of Chinese culinary techniques. Live streams about outdoor activities, such as surviving in the wild, adventures, hunting, and hiking are also popular. Viewers like such content because these streams can teach them about outdoor skills and about locations they seldom visit; they also enjoy the unpredictability and authenticity of such streams.
ICH live streamers want to engage young viewers as much as possible, as the hope for safeguarding ICH practices rests with this population.
Since 2017, some people in China have begun to use live streaming to showcase and promote ICH. These streamers are typically practitioners of ICH and may even come from rural areas. Most of them use mobile phones to stream due to its convenience .
Knowledge-sharing live streamers have several motivations. Those who share formal knowledge through live streaming are mainly motivated to complement the current education system, stating that they want to provide equal access to knowledge for students from universities that have limited resources. They also want to have a positive impact on young people’s lives, believing that live-streaming platforms are the most convenient place to reach large numbers of young people. In the case of ICH live streamers, they want to engage young viewers as much as possible, as the hope for safeguarding ICH practices rests with this population. With live streaming, streamers can promote ICH on a large scale without geographical constraints.
Knowledge-sharing live streamers also stream to socialize, as live streaming provides them more chances to communicate with people with whom they may not otherwise have the chance to speak. With live streaming, streamers have a direct channel to those outside their social circles, so that their knowledge can reach a broader audience.
They also stream for self-improvement. Encountering people from diverse backgrounds allows them to see how different people react to their content and enables them to draw inspiration from their conversations. Those viewers who are experts can help streamers hone their own skills. Further, to engage and impress viewers during their live streams, some streamers make great efforts to practice and sharpen both their speaking and skills, which in turn gives them a sense of self-fulfillment.
ICH live streamers feel it is their responsibility to raise awareness and engagement around ICH. Unlike popular video-gaming streamers or performers, ICH streamers are less interested in receiving virtual gifts in streams. They are cautious not to create the impression that only those who are able to buy many virtual gifts could engage with ICH, rather emphasizing that everyone should have equal access. As noted by a streamer who shares content about dough figurines, “Young adults should not just play games using mobile phones. I feel it is my responsibility to stream. With more live streams like mine, they could also use mobiles to learn about ICH practices. ICH is the roots of our Chinese culture inherited from our ancestors.”
Viewers watch ICH live streams because they can learn something in a fun, interactive way. They like the detailed demonstrations, the direct interactions, the possibility of learning skills by practicing alongside the streamers, the ability to ask questions in situ, and the closeness that they feel to the streamers, who seem akin to role models but are more approachable than well-known experts.
Viewers also watch these streams for an education in the arts and for reflections on life. Listening to Guqin music, watching Peking Opera, and appreciating calligraphy are all traditionally seen as aspects of an elegant lifestyle in China. Live streams make these pastimes more accessible and affordable. Viewers also find it beneficial to listen to streamers discussing culture and life, which makes them think more deeply about their own life. Some viewers who watch live streams about crafting or calligraphy often express an interest in purchasing artifacts made by the streamers. Some see the artifacts as having a collectible value, whereas others enjoy watching the production process of an artifact and want to have it, since watching how it is made embeds more meaning. They are also eager to learn more about how to discern high quality from poor quality, and how to identify fake artifacts.
In terms of format, a typical knowledge-sharing live stream involves slides or a whiteboard, and sometimes a stylus to write text on the slides/screen while streaming. Others employ the talking-head style of live streams. Many knowledge-sharing and ICH streamers also stream on multiple platforms to attract as many viewers as possible. Douyu, Huya, Kuaishou, Douyin, and Bilibili are among the most popular streaming platforms. Interestingly, Kuaishou, Douyin, and Bilibili are video-sharing platforms in China with live-streaming functionality. Because some streamers cannot live stream regularly due to their full-time jobs, they often post curated short videos on these platforms, which are always visible to all users, to maintain their fan base and increase their visibility. The length of the short videos tends to range from several seconds to one minute, and due to their format, they can be widely shared on social media. The content of such curated videos is often creative and focused, highlighting unique skills or ICH practices. Viewer comments on these curated videos, as well as the number of likes, can provide useful feedback for the streamers to improve their content.
The streamers engage viewers with live and curated videos in complementary ways. If viewers raise questions during live streams, the streamer can then call out the curated videos, which contain answers, hints, or other useful information, to draw more attention to them. The more views a streamer has of her curated videos, the more likely she is to be featured on the platform and thus be visible to new viewers. On the other hand, the more creative the content of curated videos, the more likely it will stimulate users’ curiosity, which could lead to increased followers and viewer interest in watching streams when the streamer goes live.
Knowledge-sharing and ICH live streamers adopt a variety of streaming structures to engage viewers, including Q&A sessions, seminars and live talks by other experts, live performances by learners, and live tutorials about fundamental knowledge. Most streamers host special Q&A sessions focused on questions from viewers about cultural backgrounds or common misunderstandings. Such sessions are mostly on-demand; viewers are informed about the schedule in group chat. Sometimes streamers invite artists or other cultural practitioners to give talks about art and life, inviting viewers to reflect and seek a deeper understanding of these topics. Streamers also sometimes invite learners to give live performances as part of their streams, so that they can comment on the performances. Such invitational shows happen physically or virtually online. Finally, to attract a broader audience and benefit more viewers, some streamers collaborate with other streamers to give live tutorials about topics of common interest, so that even viewers who do not practice certain skills can still learn them. The invited collaborators each stream about their own expertise, and often share common groups of viewers. Different streaming structures also rotate to make sure that viewers do not get bored.
Although streamers successfully engaged viewers with diverse streaming practices, we also revealed a number of challenges associated with knowledge-sharing and ICH live streaming today.
Effort to archive the live stream. Knowledge-sharing live streamers make huge efforts to clean up the recorded video and make an archive video. They do not upload the entire recording of the live video, but rather edit the video at a later time by going over the entire video recording to decide which parts to keep, a time-consuming process. For example, a moderator of a streamer who shares knowledge about college-level mathematics said, “I usually note the segments of idle moments or less-engaging conversations when watching the stream, which are references when I edit the video. But I still have to go over the video afterwards.” Since some streamers and their moderators are not physically collocated, they have to discuss and collaborate on such tasks remotely, which can be inefficient.
Physical and cognitive demands of streaming. Because most skills, knowledge, and ICH practices require a lot of physical and cognitive skills, many streamers find it hard to keep interacting with viewers while streaming ICH. On the other hand, some viewers understand this challenge and quietly watch the live stream to avoid interrupting the streamer. This often results in a less active stream. However, as current streaming platforms encourage active streaming and promote such streams with increased visibility, quiet ICH streams with fewer active viewers often become neglected by streaming platforms. To better support increasing visibility, platforms should consider other metrics to define engagement with live streams, for example, user attention levels or arousal. Viewers’ engagement with the streamers via liking curated videos or chatting on WeChat should also be considered, though such engagement is not easily trackable and will require partnerships between different social media platforms.
One of the biggest problems with live streaming for learning is that it is hard to understand the context if someone joins midstream, or after one becomes distracted, since the live video cannot be paused or navigated.
Context loss. One of the biggest problems with live streaming for learning is that it is hard to understand the context if someone joins midstream, or after one becomes distracted, since the live video cannot be paused or navigated. Although viewers could ask the streamer or other viewers about the context by commenting, they often feel unwilling to ask, because it may interrupt the streamer or other viewers. It is also difficult for viewers to understand the context from comments, because many comments are emotional, chaotic, or cryptic, and when viewers see the comments, they may have already fallen behind the video.
Fragmented technology ecosystem. We found that the technology landscape surrounding knowledge-sharing live streaming is fragmented and complex. Knowledge-sharing live streamers use various mobile applications, including streaming platforms, short video sharing, and instant-messaging apps (e.g., WeChat and QQQ) to help them better engage viewers, promote ICH or other knowledge, and conduct e-commerce transactions. These app appropriations and practices have resulted in a fragmented and complex ICH live-streaming ecosystem. Our results highlight the complementary effects of live and curated video; however, most streamers separate the two procedures and think of them as distinct sets of streaming actions. As a result, the two forms of media compete for time and attention. Tools should be designed to help the streamers easily make curated short video summaries from the archive of their live streams, leveraging concurrent viewers’ input to achieve this.
Credibility: Need for external validation. Many streamers noted that since they spent many years learning ICH practices, they were discouraged by some other streamers who are not real ICH experts, but who pretend to be and live stream to make money. They noted that this is not good for the ICH practitioner community, because average people may be misled by these “fake experts,” leaving them with bad impressions of ICH. To mitigate the potential negative impact of fake experts, streamers expressed a desire for a verification or authentication process. Such a process could allow them to have a verified check mark on their profiles, similar to Twitter or Instagram, and perhaps be endorsed and awarded by streaming platforms, viewers, professional organizations, or even the government.
Diversity. Diverse ICH practices are currently being live streamed in China. However, some practices that are only practiced by certain ethnic groups, such as Uyghur Muqam of Xinjiang (https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/uyghur-muqam-of-xinjiang-00109) and Manas (https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/manas-00209), both listed by UNESCO as representative ICH practices, are underrepresented. This may be due to cultural differences between different ethnic groups; however, understanding the barriers that prevent these underrepresented cultural practitioners and their local communities from live streaming is important to further improve the diversity and safeguarding of ICH live-streaming practices. Governments and other nonprofit organizations should also be encouraged to provide more support and incentives for these ICH practitioners, as it is these localized practices that are most in danger of being lost.
As live streaming is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, we envision a future where all ICH practitioners and knowledge-sharing streamers can freely conduct live streams showcasing their ICH practices, knowledge, and skills, and where everyone has access to any knowledge-sharing live streams, not just the people within the home country. To achieve this, we must design tools to help viewers overcome language barriers, understand contextual knowledge and subtle cultural differences, and participate in streamer communities in ways that will be rewarding for both viewers and streamers.
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Zhicong Lu is a Ph.D. candidate in the Dynamic Graphics Project Lab at the University of Toronto. His research explores how people in China are using live streaming differently from people in other countries, especially knowledge-sharing live streams and intangible cultural heritage streams. firstname.lastname@example.org
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