Being An Influencer Is A Full Time Job For China’s Millennials

8 min read 

And more than that.

Bruce Zhang, a 21-year-old college student, spends most of his weekends and holidays playing video games in front of two big screens. Constant keyboard clicks, booming sound effects, and thunderous shouts can be heard echoing through his room located in the sub-urban areas of Shanghai.

His obsession with gaming since a young age brought not only criticism, but profit for him as well. Zhang is an e-sports commentator with over four million subscribers on Bilibili.com, a Chinese video sharing website, and a college student majoring in finance at Fudan University, one of China’s top universities.

Bruce Zhang is commenting a video game in his game room. (Credit: Pandaily)
Bruce Zhang is commenting a video game in his game room. (Credit: Pandaily)

Upon graduation, Zhang weighed his options between becoming a full-time online celebrity, and doing something else with his life. “My academic performance and life have suffered greatly because of the time I have to spend making videos. It’s impossible to find a balance because time is limited,” he explained.

Zhang is one of the many millennials in China growing up in an era dominated by social media, which has impacted their lives greatly. Although a study by a research team at Oxford Universtiy concluded that the effects of social media use on U.K. teenage life satisfaction are trivial, this is not the case in China.

“It is clear that this [being an influencer] is a job for them,” said Ben Lee, a professor from the University of Southern California, who is researching on the influencer economy in China.

This is, however, no easy job.

Only a few get to hit the jackpot.

Zhang is one of the very few college students in China who managed to buy his own apartment.

Housing prices in Shanghai have skyrocketed over the years. In the area where Zhang bought his apartment, each square meter is priced at $8722. This is way higher than the average housing price of $6542 per square meter across the city of Shanghai, according to data from Fang.com. It is also 33 times as expensive as the median housing price of Chicago.

“I bought the place with the money I earned making videos and support from my parents,” Zhang said.

Zhang would invite friends to his apartment to play games over weekend. (Credit: Pandaily)
Zhang would invite friends to his apartment to play games over weekend. (Credit: Pandaily)

China’s influencer economy was valued at about 58 billion yuan ($8.4 billion) in 2016 by CBNData. And the money is shared by tons of influencers. Over 20,000 top influencers (头部网红), who have over one million followers, are active on Weibo as of May 2018, increasing 23 percent compared to last year, according to iResearch.

Many of them chose to sign contracts with MCNs for guidance, distribution channels and traffic support. Among the A-list celebrities, 93 percent of them have signed contracts with MCNs, according to iResearch data in 2018.

“And even among the top performing influencers, only the top 10 to 20 percent are able to make money,” said Nie Yangde, founder of an MCN.

Apart from content creators, the influencer economy is occupied by many others such as incubators and content distribution platforms — which are mainly social media channels.

China's web content management chain in White Paper On the Development of China's Short Video MCN by Analysys  (Credit: Analysys)
China’s web content management chain in White Paper On the Development of China’s Short Video MCN by Analysys (Credit: Analysys)

The landscape of China’s social media is quite diverse and ever-changing, and not as settled as the one in the United States. Although short video platform Douyin, or TikTok, and Kuaishou are becoming increasingly popular, traditional platforms like Tencent’s multi-purpose app WeChat, as well as Weibo, still have enormous penetration rates. Music apps like NetEase and shopping platforms like Pinduoduo are also expanding their social functions.

“At this moment in time, China is unique in terms of its pace of development and metabolic rate,” Lee said. One third of the first wave of companies that he studied about three years ago do not exist anymore.

Money and fame is always accompanied by cyberbullying.

Yibo Wang, 28, posted his first photo on Renren.com, a Chinese website similar to MSN or Facebook, when he was still a student studying management in 2012. Renren collapsed seven years later along with other platforms, such as live-streaming website Douyu TV, forcing Wang to switch platforms for posting and uploading photos.

Wang works as a famous photographer in China. As a blogger who has over four million subscribers on Weibo, Wang only works “ten days a year.” And his concerns in life can be boiled down to this one thing— “how he could spend all the money.”

Yibo Wang is taking street photos in Beijing. (Credit: Pandaily)
Yibo Wang is taking street photos in Beijing. (Credit: Pandaily)

“We benefited from this era, where social media accelerated the speed at which our society develops. If we do our job in the traditional way, it wouldn’t be so fast,” said Wang.

But Wang also learned a harsh lesson throughout his interaction with social media, that money does not come easily. It comes with cyberbullying.

“No matter which platform I’m on, there will always be people attacking me personally,” Wang said.

Netizens criticize or even attack influencers for all kinds of reasons. Wang was accused of not having an academic background but still able to climb up to the top of the industry. Zhang has been called the “shame of Fudan University,” because he misspelled the school name as a joke.

“Those unfriendly comments could make me upset for days. I couldn’t understand how people could say such things when I was working so hard,” Zhang said, recalling the days when he started as a content creator.

In the end, they all learn, or realize that they have no choice but to make peace with hate comments. Zhang began to gradually treat the hate as “room for improvement” that was packaged in an unfriendly way to help him improve his content. “For those who really do mean to attack me personally online, I feel like there is no need to care about them at all,” he added.

“Those who call you names are really just jealous of the fame we’ve obtained,” Wang remarks. “Well, I just happened to be famous. What can you do about it.”

Netizens’ harsh comments on influencers come partially from the Chinese term’s negative connotation that it carries, which brings about prejudice.

Influencers are called wanghong (网红) in Chinese, or famous people on the Internet, when translated word-for-word. The stereotype circling around the term wanghong generally entails girls with plastic faces dressing in a revealing fashion while livestreaming online.

SEE ALSO: Ep. 41: IPO for Influencers: The Company Behind China’s Kylie Jenner is Going Public

Unlike the American understanding of the term ‘influencers’ becoming more negative as time passes, as mentioned by Lee, the Chinese connotation has in fact been improving for the better. “Influencers used to achieve fame through appearance, entertainment and marketing. Now they are likely to be famous for their skills, knowledge and charisma, ” said Zhan Xinhui, an associate professor at the Communications University of China.

They now prefer to be called KOLs (key opinion leaders), content creators, or even brothers and sisters. The latter is a way for influencers to close the gap between the audience and themselves.

Wanghong are famous because of their good-looks. But whoever rises to fame by their skills and abilities, they should be called KOLs,” Wang said. “I’m not good-looking enough to be a wanghong,” he added.

Money can’t buy happiness.

Although social media could be a place for netizens to vent, or release negative feelings, that does not work for influencers.

“I may be anxious, but I can’t pass it along online,” Zhang said.

These influencers are often faced with pressure from their need to maintain online performances, such as keeping up high quality content, update frequencies and number of followers. “When you reach a certain point, you just can’t produce cheap and nasty content anymore, which makes people think you are not worthy of your fame,” said Wang.

Like Wang, Lingxi Liu, 30, has been promoting comic strips in the online community for about a decade.

Lingxi Liu is drawing at home.  (Credit: Pandaily)
Lingxi Liu is drawing at home. (Credit: Pandaily)

Two years after her first post on Weibo, she opened up her own workshop. She used to draw cartoons every day, but now she barely has time to even sit down and sketch because she has a company to run.

“You have to think about how the industry would develop before you make decisions. And that is totally different from what I should have to think about as an illustrator,” Liu said. “What I worry about the most is that I don’t have enough energy,” she added.

NHH factory staff members are working in the office. (Credit: Pandaily)
NHH factory staff members are working in the office. (Credit: Pandaily)

Being a content creator is about more than just creating content. These creators have to keep an eye on the trends and adjust their content accordingly, let alone business development. If not, they may fall behind in the waves of innovation.

Liu started making comic videos in 2016 to catch up with the rise of short videos in China. It was the same year when Instagram increased its video limit to 60 seconds. Although she stopped for a while in 2018 because the company experienced difficulties, she had plans to start all over againnin 2019.

“You must be able to adapt. Because everyone is making videos nowadays,” she said.

Opener of Liu's comic videos (Credit: Pandaily)
Opener of Liu’s comic videos (Credit: Pandaily)

Taozhu Chu, 19, is a college freshman who insists on becoming a professional influencer in the future, even though she knows that the market is nearly saturated and she has a long way to go.

She started making lifestyle vlogs in November 2018. And almost half a year later, she has accumulated 1267 fans on Bilibili.

“I have always wanted to be a positive influence to others. And I want to be professional about it because it’s my dream job,” Chu said.

Liu offered a piece of advice to those who still want to step into the industry, “Never forget why you started, and you will always find the right way.”

Featured photo credit to Pandaily -Lingxi Liu is throwing fake money at her exhibition in a shopping mall

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