Zhibo is a weekly column in which Beijing-based American Taylor Hartwell documents his journey down the rabbit hole of Chinese livestreaming app YingKe (Inke). If you know nothing about the livestreaming (直播; “zhibo”) phenomenon in China, start here.
This requires a bit of explanation.
See, Inke used to just be a solo livestreaming app. You go on, you broadcast, people watch. End of feature list.
But in a world of countless imitators and competitors, China’s livestreaming apps need to constantly innovate – or at the very least, come up with new shiny things to dangle in front of users in the hopes of keeping them coming back. Just since I’ve been using it, they’ve added voice-only radio-style channels, started supporting Let’s-Play video game streaming, and come up with more ways to animate a sports car driving across a phone screen than you can shake a stick at.
This picture is now part of the ash heap of history
But by far the most dramatic addition to the app that I’m aware of is “PK” – a 1-on-1 “battle” of sorts where two streamers go head-to-head in an attempt to earn the most gifts and thus win…
A pretty typical PK experience
…wait, what exactly is the point of this?
I’ll be straight with you – this feels like a pretty blatantly obvious attempt to get people to pour more money into the app. The vast, vast, VAST majority of PKs I see consists of two young pretty people blasting music, shaking various body parts, and yelling that their audience hasn’t given them enough gifts to win yet. And, shocker of shockers, it seems to work.
Once the timer runs out, the “winner” is supposed to order the “loser” to perform some sort of “punishment,” which in theory has a lot of potential but usually seems to come down to either “drawing a funny mustache on your face” or “singing a silly song you can’t sing.”
So, knowing how much cash tends to get thrown at people in these little battles, I posed a question to the audience: what do you think of PK? Since I am nothing if not a shameless cheater when it comes to these surveys, I weighted one of the options just a BIT in favor of the answer I wanted. See if you can spot the standout answer:
Option 1: PK is fun! You should do it!
Option 2: PK is boring and shallow and people just do it to get more gifts. You shouldn’t waste our time or yours.
Option 3: I don’t really care.
The results? Overwhelming support for #2 (staying the hell away). And in defense of my unscientific survey, that was already the clear sentiment before I phrased it that way.
Oh, by the way – if you’re curious what “PK” means, so was I. People on Inke kept telling me it stood for “Player Killer,” and I just couldn’t believe that was the case. Turns out, it is. Apparently “PK” is a gaming term from games that have PvP where players can actually fight each other – like most MMORPG’s (if you’re trying to evaluate just how nerdy I am, I’m the kind of wishy-washy agnostic who knows what those terms mean but has never actually played “World of Warcraft”).
I know this guy is the Lich King, but I have no idea why he’s called that. Does that clear things up?
So why has “PK” edged out the much more obvious “VS” or “1 v 1”? To be honest, I haven’t a clue. Perhaps because livestreaming is naturally connected to gaming and Let’s Play videos? My theory is that since “V” is a notoriously difficult sound for native Chinese speakers, literally any alternative to “vs” has a huge leg up. But who knows?
Look, if you’re coming to me for answers, you’re already lost.
Setting aside for now how this guy got me confused with the guys Liam Neeson keeps using his Particular Set of Skills on, it is kind of surprising just how many messages I get asking me to introduce “a foreign girl.” Not as a joke or a throwaway line, but genuinely creepy dudes sending me private messages (until I have to block them) about how they need a girlfriend and they need me to help them find a foreign girl.
Look, I get it. There’s a lot of gross guys on the internet; and guys making life on the internet miserable for women is nothing new. But this weird intersection of racism and sexism – that because I’m a foreigner, I have binders full of cute foreign girls (just to pluck an analogy out of the air) sitting around somewhere waiting for fuxboy821 to hit me up – is this a thing? Do guys ask American Youtubers and other internet figures to introduce them to women? Or is this exclusively a “you’re a foreigner, you must know lots of foreigners” kind of thing?
Seriously, I’m not making this shit up
Even if I did for some reason want to help the random creepers on the internet find love in this hopeless place, I’m not even a particularly good wingman in real life; I can’t for the life of me figure out what part of my whole vibe is causing these guys to look at me and go yup, this guy is gonna get me laid.
Either way, my response is usually to suggest that these gentlemen spend less time staring at a guy on their phone and more time out in the real world – or at the very least, close Inke and open a dating app.
That and just the TINIEST facial reaction:
Much as I’d love to take this stellar review and use it to apply for a job at NPR, this just brings us back to the supply-and-demand anomaly that is English in China: everyone needs native speakers to practice with, yet everything about China ensures that they’ll always be in short supply.
Not that actual Chinese human beings aren’t open and welcoming to foreigners – in my experience, the vast majority are – but between official policies, unofficial policies, longstanding traditions, and just the sheer physical distance between China and most English-speaking countries, it just doesn’t seem like a problem that is going to be solved anytime soon.
And just to take a few more whacks at the pile of giblets that used to be a dead horse, that’s why zhibo is such a game-changer for our two worlds getting to know each other.
God, I hope more than this.
Well, you know what they say about livestreaming: It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of dumb questions and petty irritations, signifying nothing.
But apparently, my idiocy is working for at least some portion of the audience:
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