China's risque live-streaming apps are now objectifying men too

A man uses a mobile phone at an alley in Beijing, on June 15, 2018. Live-streaming platforms in China discovered their fan base with men as many migrated to big cities for jobs and sought human connection via the Internet. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese live-streaming apps that built their billion-dollar empires leveraging women's physical appeal are now tapping into their spending power.

Companies including YY Inc. (which has a US$6 billion-market capitalisation) and Momo Inc. (US$9 billion) are adjusting their product offerings as educated women in China with higher incomes demand virtual entertainment that caters to their needs.

The platforms are coming up with content that caters to women - adding sections targeted to their interests in gaming, outdoor sports, anime, and ahem, good-looking men.

Live-streaming platforms in China discovered their fan base with men - there are 30 million more men then women in China - as many migrated to big cities for jobs and sought human connection via the Internet.

The early days of live-streaming sites mimicked a mashup of "American Idol" and online hostess clubs: a place awash with scantily clad women who sang and told jokes for virtual gifts.

With slowing growth and fierce competition, platforms like YY and Momo want to change that image and become places where women feel comfortable. The move coincides with how women in China are reaping the benefits of policies that encouraged them to pursue higher education, join the workforce and take part in China's meteoric economic rise.

"Chinese women's self-awareness is growing fast, and as a company we can't afford not to pay attention to their needs and interests," said Li Ting, YY's chief operating officer.

"The so-called 'she economy' is a huge untapped market and often you will see that women are even bigger spenders when it comes to culture and entertainment."

Live-streaming is expected to nearly double from this year to 126.8 billion yuan (US$19 billion) in China by 2022, according to a research report from Internet consultant IResearch. YY and Momo both take about 60 per cent of the cut of tips that live-streamers make.

"Women are definitely the next big market to tap," said Zhu Yunhan, an analyst at New Street Research. "In the early days, the majority of viewers on these platforms were men, but as growth plateaus, they need to think how they can dig into the spending power of women."

Already, YY has lifted the revenue contribution from female users by 10 percentage points to about 40 per cent this year from when it first started the business, Li said. On Momo, women account for only about 25 per cent of users and men remain the main source of tipping.

Yet the company is working to create services that will make female users more open to using its platform including women-oriented gaming, cosmetics and fashion channels, according to Jia Wei, vice president of Momo and general manager of live-streaming.

Also, Momo has introduced privacy settings it says will help protect female users from online harassment.

"Momo is still a social platform that helps users build and discover new connections. We're not going to change our setup overnight, and we do place a lot of emphasis on protecting female users," Jia said.

YY's revenue jumped 43 per cent in the first quarter to US$518 million, while Momo (excluding its newly acquired business) rose 64 per cent to US$435 million. estimates that women's spending power will reach 4.5 trillion yuan (US$676 billion) in China by 2019.

Dong Yixuan, a 23-year-old woman who plays online games including League of Legends and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, says she will watch other live streamers, and has given broadcasters as much as US$300 in a tip.

"I started watching to improve my gaming skills, and some of the streamers were also really funny," Dong said. "The main reason I gave tips is because of direct interaction with the broadcasters."

Attractiveness Issue

In China, women can face discrimination based on physical attractiveness, with that often a factor determining whether a woman is hired or not. Some of the country's biggest internet companies have notoriously placed an emphasis on hiring women with good looks.

Even YY's Li, a woman, showcased some of that thinking. "When it comes to matters that require professional skill, men tend to be better at what they do," she said.

While many of the sites are still plastered with videos of female live-streamers wearing seductive clothing, a new phenomenon is on the rise in China - the objectification of men. This is showing up in Chinese entertainment shows, everyday language and mating habits.

Exhibit A: An increasing number of women who date younger men and refer to them as "little puppies" or "little fresh meat." Both those tags are now popular search labels on YY and Momo.

Some male users and broadcasters have chosen the labels as part of their usernames, and the topic is brought up during their live-streaming sessions.

Certainly, the use of sex appeal isn't limited to the Chinese firms; some of the biggest global social media companies including Facebook Inc. were founded on the basis of rating women's attractiveness.

Instagram and Youtube celebrities also are known to leverage their sexual appeal to attract more viewers. Robin Hanson, co-author of "The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life" said the underlying reason goes back to peoples' desire for beauty.

"It's a reflection of peoples' mating preferences projected onto technology platforms," he said.

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