Becoming a wanghong for a day: my experience going viral in China

I wanted to find out a little bit about going "viral" in China, so I did a little experiment. I was as shocked as anyone when my first ten-second video actually went viral!

This week I wanted to find out a little bit about going “viral” in China, so I did a little experiment. I was as shocked as anyone when my first 10-second video actually went viral!

If you’ve lived in China for any amount of time, you’ll probably have heard the term wanghong (Internet celebrity) thrown around and wondered exactly how people become famous online here. The answer depends on when you ask, because the Internet ecosystem — and how people become famous online in China — changes probably as often as you change your bedroom’s air filter.

In a country of 772 million netizens, China really is a place where anyone can find their own audience.

I’ve written many times about zhibo (live broadcasting), which became super popular and lucrative just a few short years ago. Basically, people live stream their lives through their smartphone cameras, and viewers can send them virtual gifts which can later be exchanged for real money. It’s a huge business, propelling many ordinary people into “stardom,” however fickle, and earning them a pretty penny at the same time.

I tried it myself, and it was exciting at the beginning to have thousands of people watching you live — on one app I now have 65,000 “fans!” — but I’ve got a bit bored of zhibo now that I more or less understand how it works.

Another way people used to get famous online was through video sites like Bilibili which is, as a rough comparison, somewhat similar to YouTube. Users can film and edit videos and then put them online for their followers and the public to watch.

I gave that a shot, too, but still don’t really understand the algorithm and clearly post way too sporadically to receive any substantial views (my most popular video was seen 100,000 times on Bilibili, and 1 million times by a company who stole it and reposted it).

But that’s all slowed down a bit now as people’s attention spans have gotten shorter and shorter. Now even a three-minute video is too long for young audiences.

That’s where Douyin (Tik Tok) and Kuaishou come in, heralding China’s entrance into the 10-second video phase.

This week I wanted to delve a bit deeper. I’ve been a passive viewer of Douyin and Kuaishou content for a wee while now, along with hundreds of millions of others across the country. Kuaishou, who appeared on the scene last year, claims to have 700 million users. Douyin isn’t far behind with around 500 million.

Andy Boreham's 10-second video of making one of his favorite New Zealand breakfast items went viral on Kuaishou.

In case you haven’t used the apps before, they basically feature short (normally 10-second) user-created videos with music and funny effects. It might sound a bit weird, but once you start watching you might not realize you’ve been sucked in until hours have already passed.

I wanted to see how easy it might be to build up a following and gain some attention there, especially since their audience numbers are not only huge, but concentrated in just one place. For my experiment I went with the bigger of the two apps (even though all of my friends say it’s too “low”): Kuaishou.

So last Sunday evening I quickly shot a 10-second video of me making one of my favorite New Zealand breakfast items: baked beans, bacon and eggs on toast. I did a quick voiceover, added some text and cute special effects and then hit “post.”

By the time I went to sleep that night I still had a grand total of three views — all my own. But the next morning, wow.

I woke up and was a bit rattled to see my Kuaishou had hundreds of messages — had I gone viral?

The short answer: yes.

Remen (trending)!” people commented under the video. By the time I got to work that morning, I had 30,000 views. By the end of the day it had been watched nearly 520,000 times, with 17,500 “likes” and close to 10,000 new fans on top of that.

That day was one I’ll probably never forget — it was exciting having thousands of status updates every time I checked my phone! But all good things must come to an end, as they say. Things started to taper off, and by day three my Kuaishou was as quiet as ever. I was back to being a nobody — my 15 minutes was up.

And what did I learn? Nothing, really! I think going viral is still just as much of a mystical thing as it ever was — I think it’s just a matter of probably dozens of factors coming together at that magical moment and then bam, it’s over.

Why are people so obsessed with these 10-second videos lately? For myself, I think apps like Kuaishou give me a very real and very intimate insight into life in what I call the “real” China, that being life outside first-tier and second-tier cities. I love watching how people in towns and villages are spending their summer, what they love to eat and how they fall in love.

I did notice, though, that the Chinese box office last month was the most successful July ever, with two local films raking in more than 1 billion yuan (US$145 million) each for the month.

That’s promising, and it’s good to know that audiences can still get something a little more substantial when they feel like 10 seconds just isn’t enough.

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