Producing Intimacy through Live Streaming: An Investigation on Emotional Labour, Gender, and Platform


Video streaming and live streaming have become dominant forms of entertainment in China and have even fragmented the television viewership (Lee 2017). Starting from video-gaming related content, live streaming services in China nowadays have contained people’s everyday life activities such as singing, dancing, cooking and talking. Live streaming can be perceived as a social practice and a cultural form that allows various user activities and generates certain cultural values.

While the live streaming industry in China has grown explosively and has become a lucrative sector of entertainment, it also “offers opportunities for lower educated, more marginalised people to participate as producers in the Chinese creative economies” (Lin and de Kloet 2019, 2). Over 60% of the live streaming content producers, or say live streamers, are young women coming from rural or lower-tiers cities seeking economic rewards. The wide diffusion of affordable technical devices, along with the booming live-streaming platforms, have offered them opportunities to achieve an upward socio-economic mobility. Zhang and Hjorth (2019) study the female streamers in the context of Douyu, a live streaming platform which mainly provides content related to video games but built its success on the popularity of female streamers (nüzhubo). By looking at “the intricate performative practice of these women live streamers in positioning themselves in attention economy”, they argue that the performance of these streamers to some extent is determined by the institutional power such as economic relations, platform regulations and broader social climate of spectatorship (2019, 811). Yet, the questions around subjectivities, temporality, and materiality in live streaming remain unanswered.

This paper aims to explore the nexus of gender, subjectivity, and technology by investigating the affective materiality of the screen, which connects the physically situated bodies of the streamers and the viewers with interface and digital features. The article in particular focuses on its influence on the practice of female steamers’ emotional labour (Hochschild, 2003). The importance of addressing the issue of emotional labour in live streaming is that it offers an often-neglected aspect to understanding the role of gender in the digital realm. Data for this paper comes from online observation on 11 female streamers on a social networking and live streaming platform MOMO. I argue that in live streaming these female streamers are in a physical and emotional state in-between performativity and authenticity, and attempt to maintain an affective relationship with their viewers. This relationship is built upon a complex and negotiable process that is influenced by gender expectation and consumerist power, and the contingency of this relationship sheds light on what I term dialogical intimacy. To maintain the dialogical intimacy, 
different patterns of these female streamers’ emotional management, which are practised on the affective materiality of the screen: deep acting on the screen; using digital features as emotional signals; using digital features as emotional reminders.