Selling virtual intimacy: Live streaming on the biggest Chinese gay dating app
Blued is a dating app and multi-functional social network targeting gay men, which boasts the biggest community in China and one of the biggest in the world (58 million users in over 193 countries, including India, Korea, and Thailand).1 Its success was recognized worldwide when, in July 2020, its parent-company Blue City (蓝城 Lan Cheng) was the first gay social network to debut with an IPO on New York’s stock market, earning the nickname “World’s First Rainbow Stock” (全球彩虹第一股 quanqiu caihong diyi gu) on Chinese media.
Founded in 2012 in Beijing by former policeman Ma Baoli, the app was the first of its kind in Mainland China. Blued is much more than a dating app, as it offers a wide range of services targeting gay men: from information on where to get an HIV test nearby to resources for LGBTQ+ friendly travel and, in the beginning, even assistance and information on overseas surrogated pregnancy.
Since its launch on the stock market, the company has yet to become profitable. Although in the past few years paid services such as Premium Membership were added, its main source of revenue is still livestreaming (introduced in 20162 it still made up to 70-80% of the profit in 20213). But why is livestreaming on Blued so popular?
Selling affection, not sex
The availability of fast connection on mobile devices made live stream entertainment increasingly popular in many countries on platforms such as Twitch, Vimeo, and YouTube Live. However, live streaming in China stands out for both volume and content. With an estimated five-billion-dollar industry, Chinese live streaming is incredibly diversified and an integral part of online social interactions. From gaming to promotional streaming (主播带货 zhubo daihuo), live streaming enables users to share experiences with friends and strangers, but also offers a way to find comfort and affection for those who lack the time or social skills for offline interactions.4
One of the most popular forms of live streaming is that of “showroom” (秀场主播 xiuchang zhubo), where streamers, mostly beautiful girls, talk, sing, and dance in front of the camera.5 This gendered form of livestream has been explored in various short documentaries (such as those from BBC and The New York Times, which reveal how the key to success in live streaming lies in beautiful appearance and sweet, affectionate behavior. Live streamers rely on patrons’ gifts (刷礼物 shua liwu) for their income, which in most cases is shared with the platforms. It can be an extremely profitable job, as confirmed during my fieldwork on one of the live streamers’ I followed on Blued, who was (allegedly) able to earn more than twenty thousand yuan in less than five days.
Similar principles apply to live streaming on Blued: good-looking, affectionate live streamers are the most successful. In his interviews with Blued users, researcher Wang Shuaishuai has found Blued users often use the words 顺眼 shunyan “good-looking” and 眼缘 yanyuan “feeling an instant connection” to describe their favorite live streamers.6 The prominence of “affective work” as opposed to “sex work” is a result of Chinese Ministry of Culture’s strict regulations on online pornographic content7 and Blued’s efforts to be more than a mere “hook-up platform.”8 It is also the product of the strong stigma around sex work still present in Chinese society9 and the growing feelings of loneliness and isolation in the world’s fastest-changing country.
Blued’s algorithm’s hidden risks: closeting and homonormativity
Since the beginning of the Internet, social networks have represented an important venue for the LGBTQ+ community to connect and find sexual and emotional companionship. The privacy online interactions offer is even more relevant in those societies where queerness is still largely stigmatized, such as China. While many users on Blued are willing to share pictures of themselves and engage in offline meet-ups, others are reluctant to show their face and confine their interactions to the online realm. This second category includes older men, at times married, who struggle to come out as homosexual.10 For them live streaming and online chats represent an even more important occasion to give free rein to their homosexuality while maintaining a semblance of heterosexuality on the outside. While this phenomenon can be seen as an empowering relief from all-encompassing heteronormativity, it can also reinforce the belief that homosexual interactions should be kept private and secluded from reality because they are shameful and abnormal.
A second risk hidden in Blued’s live streaming environment is that it can foster homonormativity, i.e., the false belief that there is only one right way of being homosexual. As discussed earlier, the most popular live streamers are attractive, masculine-presenting, and sweet-tempered. These features are promoted in Blued’s Official Live streamers Training Program and rewarded by Blued’s algorithm, which gives more visibility to official live streamers, de facto defining the features of “desirable homosexuality” for millions of users.11
In conclusion, Blued represents an important tool for the gay community not only to engage in sexual encounters but also to fulfill emotional needs and access important resources. Ma Yibao is a strong voice in the LGBTQ+ activism scene, and his efforts in navigating the complex realm of virtual paid intimacy should not go unpraised. However, improvements to Blued’s environment can be made, and diversifying the app’s homonormative live streaming policy can be a way to make those who are non-gender conforming or simply different from the “popular streamer” image feel represented and included.
References / To go further
Jing Xuan Teng, “The ex-cop behind China's largest gay dating app,” TechXplore, January 8, 2021, https://techxplore.com/news/2021-01-ex-cop-china-largest-gay-dating.html.
戴一苇, 张春楠, “Blued完成数亿融资：直播上线1个月盈利,” 澎湃 The Paper，June 1，2016, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_1477588.
MalePole男极, “Blued的故事没有打动资本市场,” 网易新闻 NetEase News，January 11, 2022, https://www.163.com/dy/article/GTDUBOLO05481YML.html.
Lin Jinglan, and Zhicong Lu. "The rise and proliferation of live-streaming in China: Insights and lessons," International conference on human-computer interaction. Springer, Cham, 2017.
Lin and Lu, “The rise and proliferation.”
Wang Shuaishuai. "Live streaming, intimate situations, and the circulation of same-sex affect: Monetizing affective encounters on Blued," Sexualities 23, no. 5-6 (2020): 934-950.
Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the People’s Republic of China, “文化部关于印发《网络表演经营活动管理办法》的通知” , December 12, 2016, https://www.mct.gov.cn/whzx/ggtz/201612/t20161212_695631.htm.
李子君, “Blued CEO：男同社交软件的超级大数据,” 健康界，September 29, 2015, https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20150929/content-478360.html.
Wang, “Live streaming,” 934-950.
Wang, “Live streaming,” 934-950.
Wang, “Live streaming,” 934-950.