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Foreigners ride China's e-celebrity wave

By Cheng Yu | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-11 07:44
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Foreign internet celebrities take part in a food promotion event in Beijing. [Photo/China News Service]

Online fame and riches via digital content disrupt traditional forms of marketing, sales as internet technology advances

Amid the gloom-and-doom scenario created by the novel coronavirus outbreak, Raz Galor, 26, an Israeli internet celebrity, showed how emerging individual-powered digital content business, which is popular with the younger generation, could make a difference to the society.

Known as Gao Yousi in China, Galor won many a Chinese heart for using his fame among netizens to help organize materials that were badly needed in epidemic-stricken areas. Part of his largesse were 100,000 surgical masks-a gesture that instantly struck a chord with his legions of fans in China.

Gao's act of kindness also shone the spotlight on foreigner internet celebrities, or wanghong, who are often very young, and are blazing a trail in China's digital content economy, creating a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

For instance, Gavin Thomas is all of 9 but can be considered an internet veteran with seven years' experience as an online celebrity. Thomas' personal account on Weibo, a Chinese social media network akin to Facebook, commands 2.42 million followers and over 100,000 daily views.

Gao and Thomas represent a new generation of netizen darlings whose business model is characterized by the ability to attract millions of eyeballs through compelling digital content, and then monetize that popularity.

Thomas, who hails from Minnesota in the United States, endeared himself to Chinese netizens by uploading dynamic images called gifs that show him making faces or flashing fake smiles.

His gifs, or stickers, which could be considered intellectual property or IP, have been used more than a billion times across various social media platforms in the country.

These days, once a face becomes popular online, it becomes a money-spinner-and a new celebrity business is born.

Typically, an online celebrity can earn money directly by selling his or her IP. If he or she chooses to produce short videos featuring miscellaneous or funny content, the platforms that host it may share any related revenue from advertising.

Besides, internet celebrities are offered as eye candy to visitors at product launches and other corporate events, a service they perform for a handsome fee.

They could even push, or subliminally advertise, certain products like gadgets, fashion or accessories through their videos or images. And once they gain traction, celebrities could even produce and sell their own products, making more money.

Thomas certainly has. He has been inundated by invitations for appearances at so many events that his local agent has become very protective and discerning, picking and choosing carefully. The idea is to regulate the number of invitations so that the life and education of the 9-year-old are not unreasonably disrupted.

Two factors are stoking the rapid development of the wanghong economy in China: the humongous community of netizens; and the state-of-the-art internet infrastructure, crowned by 5G that facilitates rapid uploads and downloads of big-size content files.

In a sense, the wanghong economy appears to create fresh hopes at a time when doubts were being raised about the sustainability of a business dependent on alternative celebrities.

Such hopes are linked to online celebrities such as Bart Baker of the United States where he boasted some 10 million fans on YouTube. But he shifted his focus to the China market on hearing about its growth potential.

Similarly, Germany's Thomas Derksen or Afu, 31, hit pay dirt in China through his e-documentation of his life and times in Shanghai. Afu was even invited to join the delegation that accompanied German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier during his visit to China in 2018.

According to a report in Beijing's Global Times, which quoted a scholar from the Free University of Berlin, China is now the engine of the global wanghong economy and is also its largest market which, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, generated more than $7.9 billion in revenue last year.

"For Chinese, watching the content of foreign wanghong generates a refreshing, feel-good factor. It's like a newborn seeing itself in the mirror for the first time," said Yang Qiguang, a researcher from Columbia University's Tow Center.

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