Live streaming dominates social media in China. By 2016, there were more than 200 social media platforms for live streaming, and its growth has made it an essential marketing tool for e-commerce platforms like Alibaba and Taobao. Live streamers have been key figures in establishing consumer trust in products they can only see on screen. But they have also changed the rules and protocols of product advertising due to their self-branding, accessibility to fans, affordable lifestyles, and personal business strategies. Viewers expect live streamers to be live for hours every day, respond immediately to their comments and requests, and maintain a delicate balance between authenticity, niche appeal, and commercial work necessary to sustain their career.

Erbi Chen (陈膧僈) is a live streaming host with almost 2 million followers across 8 digital platforms. For three days during the Salone del Mobile, the exhibition becomes her workplace as she live streams to her predominantly Chinese fanbase. Viewers can encounter Erbi in two ways: they can watch her on digital screens both inside the exhibition and from far away, or they can observe her work as a filmed and staged performance—in a larger context of digital labour and trade and in relation to design and media.



How does the live streamer operate as a unique agent within the Alibaba universe?

Like many Internet phenomena, live streaming was first used for pornography and then gaming, with a mostly male audience, in the mid-2000s. Over the years, the increase in smartphone and mobile Internet speeds made live streaming accessible to broader audiences and purposes. In China, live streaming has been a huge market and career path since 2016. Live streamers earn money from fan donations, endorsements and advertisements, and branded merchandise; most of their viewers/customers are female. Alibaba is a powerful platform for live streamers: they can order products from manufacturers on (B2B), sell them to fans on (B2C), promote their own products or endorse other companies on Taobao Live, and manage payments through Alipay. Alibaba also acts as an intermediary between manufacturers and multiple-channel networks, who work as agents for online celebrities that can be hired to advertise products.

Live streamers have a unique power in the world of e-commerce because they offer online customers a unique form of access to the products they would otherwise see only through text and images. On Taobao Live, the hosts interact with the products, describing them and displaying them at different angles, and they respond in real time to customers’ questions posted on the stream. And unlike celebrity advertising, live streamers have more freedom to express their authenticity and distinct personality: instead of following a promotional script, they can show products in amusing or unintended ways, depending on their personal profile. Many live streamers broadcast for four hours per day—and some up to 12 hours per day. During that time, they are not only advertising products but also performing, maintaining personal connections to their fans, giving them a platform to share their interests or ask for advice, and even offering emotional support. In these exchanges, neither side is dominant: together, live streamers and followers are creating their own dreams, bubbles, or worlds.

These interactions contradict the stereotype that digital technology is alienating people and making them indifferent. Through live streaming, people find new ways to communicate and bond through their devices and via objects. Unlike film or music stars, live streamers do not project their lives as unattainable fantasies: they show their fans how to emulate a vision of luxury with affordable products, making themselves seem relatable to their fans as well as easy to imitate. Although live streamers often copy other brands to make their merchandise, they also make themselves available to the feedback of their followers, and they make the design process more collaborative than the original manufacturers. As designers, we should not be outraged by their copying but inspired by their connection to their users.

Why are you inviting a live streamer to perform at the Salone del Mobile in Milan?

I invite live streamers to work from within design events in order to show audiences how they do their daily job. We cannot imagine how dynamic and intense the process is by watching through our screens. But they are not “performing” a fictional role in the exhibition, they are just doing business as usual. For Salone, I use my exhibition space to give a stage to live streamer Erbi Chen and her video director Qianyi Chen. Erbi posts one video per day for her numerous followers across eight platforms, including almost 2 million followers on TikTok. (Only a fraction of her posts are advertisements; otherwise, she would lose the trust and loyalty of her fans.) In the exhibition, the relation between the live streamer, the physical viewer, and the online viewer is mediated by devices, especially smartphones. At the same time, as visitors in Milan wander into the scene captured by the camera, they become active participants in Erbi’s workplace.

How is live streaming positioned as a form of labour and status in China?

Live streamers and their audiences are a diverse group, covering all ages and ranging widely in terms of monetising their online brand. Their potential is determined not by financial profit but by the size and engagement of their audience. Live streaming cannot resolve class barriers in China, but it does offer people of one socioeconomic status a window into the lives of others. For example, live-streaming farmers or gangsters often attract middle-class audiences who regard them through the lens of exoticism, which the streamers try to translate into a tool for socioeconomic advancement outside of the typical academic route. But live streamers also face many challenges: they need to engage their audience constantly or risk losing followers. However, if they join the mainstream entertainment industry, they may damage their personal brand if they do not appeal to a wider audience or follow China’s strict codes of creative expression. Today, live streamers struggle with the pressures of exposure, identity, and competition: many of them have attended training schools for online celebrity, and their job is vulnerable to the same precarity, exploitation, and social hierarchy as any factory or office job.

Project Images

Copyright Design Academy Eindhoven. Photographs by Nicole Marnati.