Livestreamers : Geishas of the Internet (Preview)

In Asia, some hyper-connected young people earn money by making lonely fans believe in a potential friendship or love.
The best of them can make 500 000 euros a month…and even have their own private island.

Every day in the biggest Asian cities, livestreamers dance, chat, sing, and even eat for many hours in front of their webcam. On the other side of the screen, thousands of anonymous fans try to combat their profound loneliness by giving special gifts to their idols : virtual stickers.

Sending a single virtual sticker to a livestreamer can cost thousands of euros. All the money received from those stickers will be shared later between the agency, the platform and the livestreamer. For a lonely fan, spending this money is the ultimate chance to catch their attention, to hope for a personal reply, and why not their heart?

From China to Taiwan, including South Korea, we spent 5 months inside the core of this inaccessible and disturbing world.

We will investigate : What issues of our hyper-connected society are hidden behind these colorful backgrounds ? Is livestreaming a job with bright future?

jerome gence

Portrait of Manshi, 24 years old, livestreamer. Fans can only see the livestreamer through the webcam. On their side, the livestreamers can never see the fans’ faces. To communicate with fans, livestreamers can talk or write them live by instant messaging. Charm is a required skill for a livestreamer to attract lonely people…and make sure they buy and send as many virtual stickers as possible. 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

After downloading the app for free, fans choose among a long list the livestreamer they want to follow.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

The price of virtual stickers starts from a few euros to thousands of euros. A virtual sticker is valid for a single use only.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

Fans can send instant messages for free to the livestreamer, but replies are not guaranteed as the livestreamers receive many instant messages at the same time. To get the livestreamer’s attention, the fans can send virtual stickers of varying value.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Once bought and sent, the virtual sticker is displayed on the livestreamer’s and the other fans’ screens. The money from the purchases of virtual stickers is shared between the livestreamer, the agency, and the platform itself.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Portrait of Strawberry, 24 years old, livestreamer. To be more attractive, livestreamers make their faces whiter and thinner thanks to filters installed on the computer. Nighttime is rush hour for livestreamers. When fans are combating their feelings of loneliness, they send more virtual stickers. 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Xi’an, China, in one of the studios of Redu Media Agency. Portrait of a livestreamer sitting in front of a background at the studio. Each agency is composed of several studios with various background themes.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

A livestreamer dances in front of the webcam for her fans. “Except us, fans have no one else to talk with. They thank us for our presence by buying virtual stickers.” Dancing, singing…anything goes to keep the fans online. But according to the livestreamers themselves, talking with someone is what the fans want the most.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Kongto, 32-year-old Taiwanese fan of Yutong – young livestreamer. In his room, Kongto shows one of the screenshots he saves in his phone whenever he offers a virtual sticker to Yutong. Virtual stickers is a war of nerves. For a lonely fan, sending expensive virtual stickers is the only way to finally make someone remember them.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Lala, 35 years old, famous independent livestreamer. In addition to livestreaming sessions, Lala uses her popularity and image for partnerships with companies, brands, or associations. Here in a room of a love hotel in Kaoshiung. No need to have a computer to be a livestreamer. A smartphone is all you need. Some livestreamers decide to work independently and use their image as a product. But no matter the device, the job is the same : selling unattainable dreams to lonely fans. 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Taipei, Taiwan. Yutong (in the center), a young livestreamer and player of the Chinese traditional lute. In addition to daily livestreaming sessions, Yutong performs weekly with a group in a Taipei coffee shop. Before and after the concerts, Yutong uses livestreaming to promote her group to her fans.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Xi’an, China. Some livestreamers even specialize in live dinners. For fans who never have someone to eat with, having a livestreamer eating in front of the webcam can be a helpful option to combat loneliness. In the photo, Summer (left) and Jun (right), in a night market, eat meat skewers in front of the webcam on their mobile phones. 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Seoul, South Korea. The job of a livestreamer is not only reserved for pretty young women. Young men are also competing for a slice of the pie. In Korea, mukbang is an extreme concept of a livestreaming show. Every day, mukbang livestreamers prepare kilos of food to devour in front of the webcam. Thousands of fans are always on time to watch this special event.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

In the photo, Lee, a 31-year-old mukbang livestreamer, is in a livestreaming session on the terrace of the room he rents. Lee: « Eating kilos of food in front of the fans is not enough. We must also satisfy their whims if we want to receive the maximum of virtual stickers. Some fans ask me to add more peppers, others ask me to cut the food only in a certain way ».
According to the mukbang livestreamers, there are 3 kind of fans: people who don’t have anyone to eat with ; people who are struggling to lose weight because of the society pressure ; people who find satisfaction by ordering the mukbang livestreamers to eat more and more.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Taipei, Taiwan. In one of the private booths of a cybercafe, in a basement, Junji, 42 years old, watches on his mobile phone a livestreaming session of Yutong, one of his favorite livestreamers. In the basement of these cybercafes, mangas, movies, food, and even washing machines are provided for customers.
Junji: « I left my hometown in eastern Taiwan to work as a factory worker in Taoyuan, south of Taipei. I work 8 hours a day, night or day according to the schedule. I share my room with three other workers. We live in the factory dormitory. As an escape, I go from time to time in a cybercafe in Taipei for a change of pace. I drive 3 hours with my scooter to go there. I do not mind because no one is waiting for me. I like driving my scooter at night, I feel free. » 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Taipei, Taiwan. In a theme restaurant, Junji has lunch while watching a livestreaming session on his mobile phone.
Junji: « Livestreamers bring something wonderful into my life. When I feel stressed at work, watching the sessions makes me feel good. And then, I can share with someone what happened in my day. They comfort me with their encouragement. It is very relaxing. They play or sing the songs that we, the fans, choose. » 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

In his room, Kongto is undisturbed and is watching a livestreaming session of Yutong.
Chilly, musty, and silent are the words that come to mind as first impressions of Kongto’s home. To deal with the rather dreary atmosphere, this 32 year old man has found a warm escape with livestreamers. Inside his room, the furniture has never changed. In fact, Kongto never left his parents’ house. After making sure the door is locked, he takes advantage of our visit to display all of his livestreamer idol treasures on the wall. Usually, all the photos, posters, and goodies are locked inside a drawer. His parents would be mad to discover his virtual secret. Only his military service photos are allowed.
Kongto: « I’m 32 years old and I’ve never kissed a woman. On the Internet I have more courage to say something than in the reality. » 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Among passersby in the trendy Ximending neighborhood, Junji is watching commercials on a big screen. In his arms, the soft toy that he just bought for Ciaoya, one of his favorite livestreamers. The soft toy represents Kobitos, Ciaoya’s favorite cartoon character.
Junji: « I just want to make friends. » To achieve this, Junji can count on the magic « Add friend » button on Facebook. But reality catches up with him as always: « On my Facebook, out of 100 friends, I know less than 10 of them in person. I send most of my Facebook friend requests randomly.” 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Kaoshiung, Taiwan. Lala (left) is one of the most famous livestreamers in Taiwan. Her beauty and her single mother status attract fans. She occasionally includes her daughter Mong Mong, 9 years old (right), in her livestreaming sessions. In the photo, Mong Mong helps her mom with her makeup. To-do lists, makeup, massages…Mong Mong doesn’t play with dolls anymore, she helps her mother to become one. 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Seoul, South Korea. In the Gagnam district, the most prestigious of Seoul, Hase, a young livestreamer, takes a selfie in front of a luxury brand store. With the money they earn, livestreamers can be closer to their concept of a successful life.
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Kaoshiung, Taiwan. Q Jiang a famous livstreamer dog, sitting in an electric car, is posing in front of fans who came to meet him at an event organized by a shopping center. In the background, his owner answers questions of the host. 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Seoul, South Korea. Mukbang livestreamers participate in a contest at a restaurant in Seoul. Participants have 20 minutes to finish their bowl of spicy noodles. Restaurants take advantage of mukbang livestreamers’ celebrity to organize competitions. A good way for them to entice fans who follow the competition online to discover their menus in real life. 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Monjie, a young livestreamer sits on a couch between livestreaming sessions. On the wall, a hand is pointing at the one who is reading the message, translated into three languages: « Did you work hard today?. »
To allow the livestreamers to work as much as they wish, the agency  remains open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

A young livestreamer puts her makeup on in the dormitory provided by the agency. For young livestreamers who have left their village to try their luck in the big cities, sleeping in the dormitory of the agency enables them to save money on rent. They can also work more to earn more money.
Cherry : « As a livestreamer, I earn in 1 month the equivalent of 10 years of hard work in my village. » 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Photo of a chair used by livestreamers in one of the studios of Redu Media agency. In the agencies, livestreamers do one livestreaming session after another without stopping for many hours. The colorful background is the only element that appears in the webcam field. Fans do not know what happens behind the scenes of this difficult job. 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Seoul, South Korea. In his studio at home, Huh Mino, a famous independent mukbang livestreamer, displays a picture of himself before becoming livestreamer (right). 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos

jerome gence livestreamers

Taipei, Taiwan. In Da’an District in central Taipei, 17 Media, owner of a livestreaming app, bought a ten-foot billboard just above a Rolex shop. On the advertisement, four livestreamers pose with an endearing slogan intended for lonely souls: « I want to be with you. »
Even if the job is hard (8 out of 10 livestreamers give up in 2 years, 9 out of 10 livestreamers need to take a side job), forecasts show that livestreaming and this industry of loneliness still have a bright future ahead: in China, for instance, 54% of students aimed at becoming an Internet icon. In Japan, 40% of inhabitants will live alone by 2035.
The agencies managing the livestreaming apps are innovating to meet the demands of the fans: livestreaming managing schools, recruitment within colleges, and even psychology coaching are popping up. 
The Livestreamers – © Jerome Gence / Cosmos