What Does It Take to Be an Internet Celebrity?


A millennial explores the world of internet fame

A young woman from the Central Academy of Drama made headlines in May by attracting 12 million yuan in investment funds. By the end of the month, everyone had heard of Papi Jiang.

Papi Jiang started uploading original humorous videos to the Internet in October. She posted new videos every Monday to discuss social issues and everyday life, such as gender difference, weight loss, movie review, etc. In the six months that followed, she attracted more than 11.8 million followers and 290 million views.

According to a report by Liu Yang on People’s Daily, Papi Jiang hosted two advertising auctions through Alibaba this year. Companies that bid could air their advertisements at the end of any Papi Jiang’s video produced after May 21. Tickets to the events cost 8,000 yuan and each conference sold 100 tickets.

The news has left many wondering about the sustainability and future of this Internet celebrity economy as the number of apparent overnight millionaires continues to swell.

Becoming Internet Famous

For Internet celebrities, one’s follower count is the most direct indicator of his or her material worth.

Many Internet celebrities have become brand ambassadors or started their own clothing stores on TaoBao. Their collections are usually priced lower than the similar shops of mainstream celebrities and help to turn fans into potential customers.

On the surface, Internet celebrities such as Papi Jiang also seem more down-to-earth because they come from the general public. That gives Internet fame the illusion of being highly profitable and easy to attain.

But success stories are few, and an attempt to become Internet famous can easily swallow one’s life.

Rising stars on the web are cataloged by so called “hatching companies”: firms that analyze their potential to attract and monetize a fan base.

An employee at one hatching company interviewed by Guo Xiaoyan, said Internet celebrities sponsored by his company face strict guidelines. They are required to post constant status updates and to interact with fans, and the company decides who they can date or keep as friends. Tapped celebrities are followed by a 10-man public relations team to ensure compliance.

Companies spend at least 1 million yuan per year trying to “raise” an Internet celebrity. Those who fail to bring in a profit within three to six months are promptly dropped.

Faced with that rigid scheduling, many people prefer to seek Internet fame on their own by directly reaching out to manufacturers and advertisers.

Rednet news reported the arrest of three female Internet hosts on May 4 for broadcasting “inappropriate content” to users of Tencent QQ. The main host, Xue Liqiang (alias), said she hoped the stunt would make her famous.

Xue, a college graduate, had recently quit her job as a sales representative to earn money by “performing” sexual activity on webcam. While she did attract more than 40,000 followers, she also ended up in prison.

The Search for Celebrity

People rarely start a social media account expecting to earn millions of yuan. But many do expect to find an audience.

Social media’s biggest selling point is that it makes fame and popularity seem less unattainable.

When Paris Wang first started to post photos with her friends on Weibo back in 2011, she never thought she would gain more than 140,000 followers. “I think being an Internet celebrity is an everyday longing. We’re a group that exists between the real stars and the general public,” Wang said. “We come from the public, and it feels nice to have people’s support and love.”

Most people want to feel favored and connected to somebody – especially if they are popular.

Aside from the emotional appeal, there are also other reasons that contribute to the rise of Internet celebrities. And they all have to do with the character of the Millennial generation.

Most Millennials – even in China – have grown up with mobile phones. According to research, the average Millennial spends 154 minutes per day on a smartphone. For this group, there is no clear line separating the Internet from everyday life.

Millennials also represent a more metropolitan generation with most people being exposed to other culture and views. The average 20-year-old is constantly searching for excitement and struggling to be unique.

In China, where most Millennials have no siblings, people are especially eager to connect with others and tend to be very sociable. The radiant confidence in their selfies suggests everyone believes he can be an Internet celebrity.

But more time spent on social media may be detracting from one’s quality of life. It’s common to see a family having dinner together with everyone on their phone. Millennials are also spending less time outdoors.

According to Statista, there are 853 million active users on QQ, 697 million on WeChat, 400 million on Instagram and 222 million on Weibo as of April 2016.

With new technology bursting into the market, it’s very difficult to say where the Internet and social media will lead society. But while we admire the beauty or talent of Internet celebrities, it’s worth remembering what Australian Internet celebrity Essena O’ Neill said before her “retirement.”

Social media is not real life.

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