From lovers to duck demons, unusual virtual services are booming on the Chinese Internet
One of the most fascinating realities of the Chinese tech ecosystem is how creative its users have been.
In addition to fueling the push towards the world’s first almost entirely cashless economy and contributing to its oversized markets and clearinghouses, Chinese millennials are also driving demand for virtual services that are often eye-opening and sometimes outrageous, even for the people who comb the platforms on which they are offered.
From ordering digital mosquitoes to online fatherhood, RAY takes a closer look at some of the more unusual virtual services on the market.
Virtual people are not an unknown concept in China, given the growth of virtual influencers in fashion and e-commerce during the last years. Virtual lovers, however, are a less visible phenomenon, emerging as early as 2014 on the online shopping platform Taobao, on the Reddit-type website Baidu Tieba, and even as a “virtual girlfriend” developed by Microsoft, XiaoBing (which was impacted by a WeChat ban in 2019).
Through these services, customers can purchase a romantic companionship, usually by texting, phone calls, and sometimes video calls, depending on their comfort level. Many services include listening to customer complaints about life, providing emotional support, and wishing customers good night. You can also ask them to “cosplay” as characters from anime and video games. Maybe the movie Her was shot partly in Shanghai for good reason.
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There are, however, lines that virtual lovers do not cross. They make it clear that sexual interactions are prohibited and that transactions do not involve face-to-face dating.
The price of these virtual partners varies according to the duration of the service as well as its quality and customer requests. One provider on Taobao we contacted offers a surprisingly nuanced variety of services – not only can you specify your virtual lover’s personality, but there are also multilingual options such as English, French, Korean, and Japanese.
A one-hour “romance” can cost as little as 30 RMB (around 4.30 USD) or as much as 300 RMB. Meanwhile, an entire month of company can cost between 666-1888 RMB (about 95-269 USD), depending on a pricing table the supplier sent us.
According to a 2020 to study, young women tend to dominate this industry as both buyers and sellers. Xu Zhiwei, co-author of the study, estimates that for every male customer, there are three female customers.
One explanation is that many young Chinese find it difficult to find a balance between life and long hours of work. This is especially true for Chinese women, who now face increasing expectations to find financial stability and professional success for themselves – despite pervasive gender inequality in the workplace – while also coping with the pressure from family and friends to marry and have children. Stressed out by all of these expectations, clients either have limited time to date, need someone to look after their emotional needs, or just want a companion – temporary as that may be.
There are also reasonable concerns about how the industry may be exploited, such as potential transactional sex and financial scams. For these reasons, it is currently operating in a gray area in the field of electronic commerce.
Praises at a price
You may feel exhausted or heartbroken. Maybe you are telling yourself that you are not good enough. But there are people who can tell you otherwise.
For 45RMB (or about 6.50USD) you can add yourself or add friend to one kuakua quun (å¤¸å¤¸ ç¾¤), or âgroup of complimentsâ on the WeChat messaging app for five minutes. In these groups, paid professionals will write you messages filled with unconditional and passionate praise.
Before one could pay for such groups, a version of them existed on the Chinese social network platform Douban as “mutual praise groups. “ As the name suggests, the members congratulated each other unconditionally, providing a needed dose of positive feedback to another user. Given the ubiquity of WeChat, the most widely used messaging app in China, you only need to type in a few keywords to get the praise you’ve always dreamed of.
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By entering one of these groups ourselves, we assumed that the compliments would be boring and generic, like a Google search for “how to boost someone’s morale.” Instead, we found that the cheers were actually quite deep and were sometimes poetic, citing classic Chinese myths and proverbs.
The process usually goes as follows: After ordering the service, you briefly introduce yourself with some of your interests and describe the areas in which you want words of encouragement. Within minutes, you’re invited to a WeChat group where 15 people are waiting to shower you with compliments.
These complimenters will have already changed their pseudonyms in the group to assume their new roles, such as “[Name] is my God / Goddess âorâ I am the escort of the Little Fairy [Name]” and “[Name] Love you. âFor the next five minutes whether you like it or not, your phone will explode with some of the most flattering messages you’ve ever received.
“I’m crazy for you,” one reads in one message. “You are magnificent enough to sink the fish and the geese to settle down, to make the moon hide and the flowers to feel shy.” Your beauty does Xi Shi [è¥¿æ½, one of the Four Beauties in ancient China] and Diao Chan [è²è, another of the Four Beauties] ashamed of their inferiority.
âHandsome and smart,â adds another.
While it may seem impersonal to get compliments from paid strangers on the internet, groups are nonetheless an effective method of getting a temporary ego boost.
But while enjoying the praise, we are abruptly kicked out of the compliment group without realizing that the five minutes are up, leaving us only the bitter realization that such joy and fulfillment in life is too fleeting – and in this case, they come at a price.
You can hire anything … virtually
âI bought you a virtual daddy,â a friend wrote to us as we researched for this article. ” He is on his way. A virtualâ¦ “daddy? “
“No, a virtual daddy.”
And then our father enters the chat. “How are you, little kid?” He wrote to us on WeChat, after our friend ordered his services from Alibaba Xianyu’s online second-hand marketplace (é² é±¼).
While we are concerned about his somewhat abusive, non-parental language like all good kids, we ask him for an extra allowance, which turns out to be a mistake – he then gives us a 10 minute lecture on how to don’t waste money on nightclubs.
Similar services available on Xianyu include virtual pets that you can âtalkâ with on WeChat. Baffled, we decided to order a duck for ourselves.
âHey, I’m a duck demon,â he said as we entered our chat, before bombarding us with messages that say âcorner, quack, quack” over and over again. It might have sent an SOS signal, but we just had no way of deciphering it.
We try to joke with the demon because we know there is a real person behind the screen. “Do you know any other sounds? “We ask, before receiving the only understandable answer among the” charlatans “:” Otherwise, how would a duck sound, miss? ” Our screen was then quickly inundated with more quackery for two straight minutes, before the service ended and the demon left as mysteriously as it came, like our army of complimenters in the kuakua group.
Although our “duck demon” was probably just copying and pasting the same words over and over again, costing 0.5 RMB (less than 0.1 USD) per minute, that’s not a bad deal.
We end up getting our hands on the person behind the animal noises story. He turns out to be a bored college student stranded at home due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. On a normal day, he usually receives around 30 orders, which earns around 30 RMB (around 4.28 USD).
âMosquitoes are the most popular here for gifts. People order it for their friends to play a prank, âhe explains.
In addition to offering virtual animals, the student also sells representations of the suona (å¢å) – a traditional Chinese instrument that has a high pitched yet beautiful sound. In July, in the middle of the national junior high school testing season, two âgood luckâ songs were announced for as low as 2 RMB ($ 0.27) for any student in need of extra wishes.
Other popular virtual services in the market include swearing, game play, morning alarms, and hypnosis. If you can imagine it, you can probably find it somehow.
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As fun and harmless as these virtual services may seem, you can no longer find them by searching for keywords on Taobao and WeChat. Chinese internet censors have set up a repression on these services in november 2014 for unspecified reasons, prompting virtual sellers to operate in more invisible markets using alternative keywords and word of mouth.
Whether or not the emergence of these virtual services is embedded in an ever-growing virtual economy, and how Chinese regulators react, will be something of interest to watch in the years to come. Yet, in our experience, the most obvious conclusion is: never underestimate the imagination of Chinese internet users.
Report: Tianyu Fang and Siyuan Meng
Header illustration: Mayura Jain