What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

Ria Golovakova

September 2019

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between the categories of “work” and “labor.” She differentiates between two types of human worker: the “homo faber who makes and literally ‘works upon’” and the “animal laborans which labors and ‘mixes with.’” In this conception, work is the creation of some product “which outlasts its own activity and forms a durable addition to the human artifice,” while labor “needs to be reproduced again and again in order to remain within the human world at all.” Arendt concludes this meditation on the nature of work by arguing that art, in her opinion, is the most durable creation that humans can make, and thus the best form of work

How then, might Arendt classify work done by someone like Jing Zi, a young Chinese woman whose job is to live stream herself for 7 hours a day? In a 5-minute documentary video about her done by Noah Sheldon, Jing Zi goes through the motions of her typical content. She puts on makeup, plays with cute video filters, sings karaoke, and eats lunch that one of her fans ordered in for her. The woman is an employee of a media company in Beijing, that hosts other live streamers like her, and provides them with individualized filming sets and promotions in exchange for a percentage of the profit. Jing Zi regularly makes more than 10,000RMB ($1454) a day.

In fact, Chinese live streaming is one of the world’s fastest growing industries: in 2018 the number of users reached 456 million people and Deloitte valued market at $4.4 billion. The Chinese are dedicating their time, love, and money to their favorite streamers in extents that are unfathomable within the Western framework of internet celebrity.

Hannah Arendt in the classroom

Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University

In the West, internet concept creators often follow the “influencer” model of internet celebrity. They post some content on a variety of internet platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, and attract a large following of people who engage with their content through comments, likes, and shares. None of these interactions, however, directly earn money for the content creator. Instead, their stream of income is usually a combination of merchandise sales, paid subscriptions on platforms like Patreon, and sponsored advertisements, in which companies reach out to them and provide a flat rate per post based on the number of followers.

Chinese live-streamers, while also trying to amass a large following and often working with advertisers, are in a very different position. Their main source of income is directly built into the platform: viewers during a live stream can buy “gifts” for the streamer, which appear as little animations on the screen in real time, and are purchased with actual currency deposited onto the app account. The streamers tend to respond to the gifts in real time, engaging with the users who pay larger sums and thanking them directly. In some platforms, there are added benefits, such as gaining the host’s contact information after reaching a certain monetary threshold in gifts.

“Live Streamer” is a short documentary by Noah Sheldon, exploring the industry through the example of live streamer Jing Zi.

Incomes of the most popular streamers can reach over $100,000 dollars a month, and even the less successful hosts earn many times the average salaries of college graduates in China. Many of these internet celebrities originally come from the working class, but through their popularity are able to obtain rich and lavish lifestyles. Their situation is in stark contrast to the rest of China’s population, as there is very little social mobility in terms of wealth, as the working class do not have the same educational and professional opportunities as the wealthy, who have stayed rich for generations. In fact, many of these working class viewers even impede their financial prospects, as they donate significant portions or even the entirety of their salaries to their favorite live streamers.

This seemingly irrational behavior is caused by the desire to keep one of their own rich, since the working class audiences are well aware that they could never reach those levels of financial success themselves. Furthermore, they are drawn to the live streams to feel less lonely: the changing economic and geo-social makeup of China, especially through increasing urbanization, has left many young people disconnected from their families and communities, and isolated in large but lonesome cities.

The live streams are an attractive form of escapism: hosts mostly stream boring content, like eating on camera, chatting, or simply going about their daily commute. Nonetheless, in some cases viewers tune in for up to 8 hours at a time, spending their entire day in virtual company with likeable hosts.

This particular medium, however, is very unique compared to other popular forms of internet content. Live streams are transient: the video is not recorded or uploaded for potential later viewing, all that exists is the here and now. In Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online, Crystal Abidin writes that such “always-transient content” is “largely motivated by the followers’ cultivations of perpetual ‘FOMO,’ or the ‘fear of missing out.’” The immediacy creates a sense of exclusivity, and heightens the effect of virtual connection between the audience and the hosts.

Can Arendt’s conception of work and labor be applied to this occupation? Live streams do not have inherent market value or practical use. Instead, they are an evolution of other kinds of internet visual content (pictures and videos), which can be viewed as art and are often judged to aesthetic standards that resemble the approach to artistic products. In this case, lack of usability can also be viewed as proof of artistic status. However, the transience of live streams complicates this category. While the hosts technically create something new, the durability lies not in the content itself but in the audience that the content generates. The direct product, the stream, gets consumed in its very process of creation. There is no “true reification,” so this supposedly artistic project becomes a labor process of toiling every day on the clock, the live stream both becoming the means to an end and an end itself that must be repeated ad infinitum.

In this vein, the categories of “labor” and “work” appear insufficient. Perhaps, we should take the new types of vocations that the internet has brought about, such as live streamers, seriously. A different conception of work may be in order.

Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.