Live Broadcasting Took Over China, But Will It Survive in the U.S.?

It’s a truism in technology that often if you want a gut check on the viability of an emerging technology, you should look to China.

It’s a truism in technology that often if you want a gut check on the viability of an emerging technology, you should look to China.

Chinese consumers have led the world in using messaging as a platform for e-commerce, using QR codes to make purchases and, most recently, live video broadcasting over the Internet.

In June, almost one-half of the Chinese Internet population had used a livestreaming application. Livestreaming was a $1.8 billion business in China last year and is projected to be a $15.9 billion industry by 2020. To put the potential size of this industry in context, the current box office in China is only around $7 billion.

This burgeoning business has prompted the introduction of live videostreaming to the U.S. market, but will it survive and thrive here, or will it remain strictly a Chinese phenomenon?

Interestingly, U.S.-based Meerkat was credited with spurring the livestreaming craze in China and inspiring many of the apps available there today. However, Meerkat pivoted to a group video chat app called Houseparty earlier this year and, despite major investments from Facebook and YouTube, live broadcasting has not reached widespread popularity in the U.S. yet.

So, what makes how the Chinese use live broadcasting different than the U.S.?

Meaningful interaction and monetization

One major difference in the two markets is that China’s is modeled more on interaction than livestreaming as a utility.

For instance, in China, if a viewer likes a live broadcast, the consumer can send a virtual gift, which the creator can exchange for real money. In return, the host might sing a song or write the gift giver’s name down for everyone to see. The host might also offer a public thanks. As a result, some Chinese citizens are making $10,000 or more per month from virtual gifts that viewers send in appreciation of their broadcasts.

The upshot is that viewing a live broadcast in China is usually a more interactive experience in which viewers determine a show’s direction. In the U.S., it’s not unusual for Facebook Live users to solicit and answer questions from viewers, but often, Facebook Live is used as a way of broadcasting an interview or panel to a wide audience or as a forum for rants or stunts. In such instances, the act of being live is not fundamental to the content, which could just as effectively be recorded and published on a platform like YouTube and viewed at any time.

Creators also cannot generate revenue from Facebook Live yet, despite vague comments that the platform is exploring those capabilities, so hearts and emojis don’t translate to real-world value, leaving little motivation beyond self-promotion for use of the feature.


Chinese live broadcasting apps also entice users through gamification features. For example, leaderboards establish new stars and provide some drama as they challenge incumbents.

As we all know, social media is an inherently narcissistic medium, and we’d all like to know where we stand. After all, likes and comments on Facebook; likes, dislikes and views on YouTube; and hearts on Instagram publicly display the popularity of users’ posts.

In China, many of these apps also have levels that drive interaction and engagement. By earning gifts from viewers, giving gifts or broadcasting frequently, users can level up to unlock new features and distinctions. For instance, users can gain access to new features or acquire a special animation when entering broadcasts once they reach certain levels.

Will live broadcasting take off in the U.S.?

Facebook is now heavily investing in Live. In order to ensure that its 1.79 billion monthly active users know about Facebook Live, the social network sends notifications to users whenever a friend is using the feature.

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