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One Saturday night about a month into the new coronavirus outbreak, Peter Li was going stir crazy. He couldn’t bear to read more about the hundreds of deaths it had caused. He’d have liked to go for a drink, but his regular Beijing haunts were closed. So in the middle of the night, Li—like millions of homebound twentysomethings in China—turned to his phone in search of relief. In Li’s case, he watched a livestream from One Third, one of the capital’s hottest nightspots. It was empty that night but live online with a pair of DJs pumping out electronic dance music. During a five-hour set a few weekends ago, viewers like Li left the club 2 million yuan ($285,000) in tips on the short video platform Douyin, ByteDance’s Chinese version of TikTok.
“The virus has cut off some essential face-to-face interaction with my friends, even strangers,” says Li, 26. “That’s something I’ve really been missing.” To make the streaming experience feel more real, he ordered club-style lights from Alibaba’s Taobao e-tail site and stocked up on whiskey. With little to do after work, he says, “online clubbing helps kill time.”
Theoutbreak of Covid-19 has cut a deadly swath across China, home to most of the 80,000 recorded cases. Beyond the health concerns and increasingly dire economic repercussions, tens of millions of people are struggling with a different type of fallout: isolation, the result of containment measures that have forced much of China into indefinite quarantine.
The most internet-friendly parts of daily life have moved online quickly. White-collar professionals are working from home, teachers are leading lessons remotely, and shoppers are doing even more buying online. But for nightclubs, gyms, and other consumer businesses that depend on physical interaction and discretionary spending, livestreaming has emerged as an awkward but effective stopgap measure to maintain contact with customers. “People are joining some virtual communities to seek social connection and a sense of love and belonging,” says Xing Cai, associate professor of psychology at People’s University of China.
Livestreaming, mostly the domain of avid gamers in the U.S. and Europe, is popular as general entertainment in China. Research firm iiMedia estimates 501 million people tuned in this year to watch a wide range of amateur performers share their lives: sometimes just sitting in their bedroom chatting into a camera, often for hours at a time. Increasingly, viewers are comfortable paying to watch or buying things midstream. More than half of China’s livestream audience watched a shopping broadcast in the first half of 2019, and 40% made a purchase.
The quarantine only makes streams more attractive. The audience for Douyin, Kuaishou, and other apps surged to 574 million during the Lunar New Year holiday, up 35% from 2019, according to the consultant Questmobile. Users averaged 105 minutes a day watching online videos, vs. 78 minutes last year.
Eventually, the outbreak will subside, work will resume, and clubs will reopen, but some analysts say this could be the moment when people get truly comfortable working out, cooking dinner, and partying alongside a livestream. “The recent changes in user interest for online entertainment and behavioral shifts could sustain for a longer period,” says Citi internet analyst Alicia Yap.
Super Monkey, a Chinese gym with 115 locations, said the number of active users online had recently topped 280,000 during livestreamed classes and boot camps. Rival chain Shape Fitness started livestreaming workouts just days after the epidemic began. “It helps us maintain loyalty of users who have nowhere to go for exercise, and it’s a good attempt for us to attract new users during this special period,” says founder Zeng Xiang.
Cabin fever has even driven interest in virtual tours of more than 1,000 Chinese museums—from Han Dynasty tombs to the Zhongshan home of former Chinese President Sun Yat-sen—offered by 4Dage, a startup in Zhuhai that uses 3D cameras to reconstruct spaces. In recent weeks, the tours attracted roughly 100 million views, up from a few thousand prior to the outbreak. The traffic spike caught the company by surprise; it had to call its engineers back from the New Year vacation to handle the demand. “People are bored, they’re looking for ways to entertain themselves while they’re confined at home,” says 4Dage senior adviser Matteo Pallotta. “Youngsters may be hooked on video games, but this provides something for the older generation.”
Teachers at Fairchild Junior Academy in Hong Kong started livestreaming storytime, singing to toddlers and even instructing them in arts and crafts to keep them entertained while amusement parks, libraries, and playrooms are closed. When teachers see their regular students have signed in, they shout out their names to make them feel like they’re together and pause to give them time to respond to questions. Overwhelmed by the audience response, Fairchild moved its streams out of public view, restricting them to kids and parents previously enrolled in its offline playgroups; videos of the interactions are later shared with the public on YouTube.
Maggie Liu, the owner of One Third, says the success of the nightclub’s livestreams should build its customer base and could create an alternative revenue stream once it reopens. The venue is drawing in new listeners, she says, “and turning them into followers who could potentially fly over to feel the vibe.”
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