Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe. If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.

Despite being by definition a type of social media, it’s sometimes easy to forget that live streaming can, in fact, be social. That is to say, there is opportunity to actually engage with other humans in a way that extends beyond simply standing on a soap box and hoping the crowds gather around you. To that end, I’ve recently been making a bit of an effort to engage with the Yingke community and possibly — wonder of wonders — make a few friends on this network of tens of millions.

pictured: me attempting to be social

The most obvious way to get to know other people on Yingke is simply watching other streams. Wandering through the top streaming rooms is a schizophrenic experience to say the least; it’s like jumping from ’90s radio shows to American idol auditions to NSFW webcams all within the span of a few seconds. And no matter where you go, you’re always treated to a seriously intense blast of Chinese — usually spoken rapid-fire between barrages of sound effects and out-of-tune KTV wailing. Actually, that’s not fair. There are some amazingly talented people on this app, from singers and instrumentalists to beat-boxers, comedians, calligraphers, jugglers, and even magicians. It’s the Greatest Show on Earth and it all fits into your pocket.

Trying to understand any Chinese on YingKe is… challenging, to say the least. Besides the obvious fact that streamers are generally shooting for a casual comedic vibe (imagine if American teenagers spoke an even more foreign language) the Chinese internet has become an unintentional conservation effort when it comes to the many of the dialects and languages of China. Half the time I’m not even familiar with the words coming out of streamers’ mouths, let alone do I have any idea what they mean. But even when the host is speaking perfectly standard Mandarin, trying to keep up with anything more than a very general sense of what’s going on is usually a fool’s errand. If I can follow along well enough to laugh occasionally, I call that a win.

Of course, there are some other foreigners on the app — several of whom have been around Yingke for quite a bit longer than me and have the fan base to show for it. We’ve got a little WeChat group (you can imagine how a chat group full of people who make part-time-jobs out of blabbing at their phones goes), and frequently show up on each other’s streams to give gifts, provoke speculation about relationships (all foreigners are either related or dating, it’s a law of nature) and generally provide some middle ground between mockery and moral support.

Although watching other foreigners isn’t necessarily helpful to my Chinese-learning goals (though sometimes it is — these people are light years ahead of me), it’s a fascinating study in what to do and not do. I almost never watch my own playbacks (you can’t even imagine the cringe levels), but watching other people deal with the same set of repeated questions and frustrations is actually very helpful and borderline therapeutic. That may sound silly, but when you get asked where you’re from close to a thousand times a day, it can be immensely satisfying to watch someone else roll their eyes at the same thing, and see what kind of snarky answers other people have come up with for the most common foreigner-specific questions.

pictured: solidarity

That being said, there’s also a strategic reason to watch other people’s streams — and really, would you expect anything less of a multibillion dollar industry that’s figured out how to commodify online social interaction? When you send a host gifts, you rise in the ranking of the audience: a literal scrollable line of everyone in the streaming room up at the top of the screen. The top three gift-givers appear with gold, silver, and bronze emblems around their pictures, and in a room with tens of thousands of viewers, those people find themselves on the receiving end of quite a few new subscriptions as well. If the host knows you, they might even decide to give you a shout out. In one of the top rooms, that could give a brand-new streamer their first few hundred fans in minutes.

It was, in fact, while watching another foreigner who knows what the hell she’s doing that I realized I’d been simultaneously neglecting the social norms of Yingke and leaving money on the table.

You see, when someone gives you a bunch of gifts and rises to the top of your audience ranking, streamers with brains (and gratitude) give that person a big shout out: “Hey, thanks so much, crazymonkeyking888 — everyone, you should go follow him, he’s great!” If you actually DO know the person at the top of your audience rankings, even better. You can tell your audience what that person does, and talk them up.

It was only when seeing this from the other side that I noticed the obvious pattern: someone gives a bunch of gifts, rises to the top, and starts getting fans of their own because the host thanks them by name and asks people to follow them. Then someone else out-gifts the first person, rises to the top of the audience, gets their own shout-out, and the cycle continues. The more gifts the host receives, the more people try to out-bid them and take their place in the spotlight.

Sold! Sold to the man in the corner sending the digital Lamborghinis!

As much as all of this indicates that Yingke is nothing more than a cold exchange of cash meant to land you your fifteen minutes of bizzaro-fame, there’s more of a real community here than you might think.

I’m not worried about trying to get a handful of fans from being at the top of anyone’s audience ranking, but I still like digitally tossing some coins in the hat. Hell, it’s almost a form of greeting. Hey! How are you? Here’s an animated flock of chickens flying over your head! And as a result of actually being pseudo-social, I’m becoming familiar with a whole lot of people — both those who stream themselves and those who are simply part of the friendly gift-giving audience group that frequent a whole bunch of streaming rooms.

The best way I can explain the social interaction on Yingke is that it’s like going to a college football game (in my case, a cappella concert might be the more apt metaphor, but I’m shooting for relatable). You show up to this thing and there are tons of other people you don’t really know, a smaller group that you’re vaguely familiar with, and a very small group you’re sitting with who you know well and are joking around with, all while some other friends of yours are the main event in front of you. 90% of what you say is lost in the crowd, but let’s be real: you’re all probably drunk anyway and everyone’s having a good time.

pictured: a good time regardless of your participation level

You have to remember that this is a world with no Twitter, no Facebook, and where the #1 social media (WeChat) doesn’t let you see any comments on anything made by anyone with whom you’re not already friends. The chat-room effect with spontaneous interaction happening in real time is new and exciting. Certainly, China already has chat rooms and forums, but meeting new people and making new connections in the background of goofy streaming rooms is a new kind of fun in a superficial, kill-10-minutes-on-the-subway kind of way. And at the end of the day, there is a strange yet fun community to be found in the world of Chinese live streaming.

emphasis on “strange”