At 7 o’clock in the evening, seven days a week, I can be found sitting on one end of my bed in Manhattan, posed in front of my phone as I address hundreds of strangers. “Hi, you guys,” I say — because the majority of my viewers are men — followed by my usual nightly greeting: “It’s been such a long day.” I pout slightly, my eyes trained on the camera to give the illusion I’m speaking directly to each individual viewer.
I watch as more sign in and the count rises — 300, 400, 500. Comments start popping up from the bottom left-hand side of my screen: innocent greetings like “good evening” and flirtatious ones like “hello gorgeous” mixing and melding, quickly pushed out of view by those that materialize below them. Soon, they start to appear so rapidly that I can’t keep up with every comment.
They ask me questions: “What did you do today?” “What part of New York do you live in — the city or upstate?” “What do you do for a living?” They ask me more personal ones: “Are you single?” “Dating?” “Where are you from?”
That’s when I start to tell little lies, the kind that give enough information to reassure them that they’re learning more about me, but not enough to let them know who I really am. I tell them which state I live in. That I’m in college, and I have two roommates. I tell them my age, 21, and how I feel like my star signs don’t really align with my personality.
I don’t tell them that I live in New York City, that I’m an NYU senior who has just enough money to afford necessities, but not enough that I don’t need a job like this. I don’t tell them that I secretly hate the two hours a night I sit in front of my camera, pretending to be interested in the stunted conversations they try to start, speaking through what can only be described as one-way glass. That every minute I spend entertaining them, my resentment for the digital world and its various twisted, impersonal methods of communication grows.
I found out about BIGO LIVE, the app where I host my nightly stream, through a friend who introduced me to a company recruiter. The recruiter sits through hours of auditions — men and women coming up to her office in a WeWork building to show off their talents for the chance to make big money for little work. I never went through an interview. Her company had turned down all the men, instructing her to only find attractive, talented women for the site. She messaged me only a few weeks after our initial meeting.
The platform has already gained wild popularity in Asia, but it had recently started looking to garner attention elsewhere. I’ve become an American ambassador for the brand; part of my role is to attract more users here at home. The contract I signed stated that I was not to use profanity — one rule I’d break often. The contract also said that I could not, by any means, do anything that remotely resembles pornography or produce inappropriate content. Most importantly, I must reach a monthly quota of what they call “beans.”
The beans system isn’t complicated, but it is frustrating. It works like this: Viewers enter my live stream, and they have the option to send me gifts, which transfer to my bean count. This count is even more important than my viewership — beans are both my tips and my ratings, and if I don’t receive enough, my account will be terminated by the end of the month.
Ideally, getting more beans would be an easy, stress-free process. One would think I’d even like getting them, as my beans transfer into real money. The catch: Approximately 300 beans amounts to just a single dollar, and very few viewers are generous gifters.
Once, when I was young, I went to a Home Depot down the street from my house and had the hulking men who worked there cut up long stacks of plywood for me. I lugged the pieces home and hot-glued them to a 7-by-7-foot board, constructing a winding, tricky little maze.
After the glue set, I started running my pet hamster, Speedy Gonzalez, through it, a dab of peanut butter placed at the end of the maze and Speedy at its beginning. I timed him as he bumbled his way through, hitting each and every dead end before finally stumbling on the finish line and consequently, his prize. The more he ran through it, the faster he got. I ran this experiment once a day for a week, and on the last day of Speedy’s run, he’d cut his initial time in half.
Working for BIGO LIVE, I have become the hamster. My metaphorical peanut butter at the end of the winding corridors is my bean count. And the faster I learn exactly what my fans like, the faster I reach the end.
I take shortcuts by picking out specific users, the ones who log in to my show and engage with me most often, telling them they are my favorites. A little extra attention, and they are more than willing to send me gifts. These are my best customers, per se, and I can rely on them to supply the bulk of my monthly quota. Overall, getting what I need from my audience means studying what my audience wants most. And what they really want is to feel special, singled out.
Yet, no matter how many gifts I’m able to pull from the tips of viewers’ fingers, I can’t shake a distinct feeling of emptiness. It sits in my gut every night, every hour that I put on my little show, talking myself into spiraling circles only to talk my way right out of them. It doesn’t feel fulfilling, spinning the same lies over and over again to an audience that begs me to listen and respond — for what?
I have a regular fan, Anthony, who always tunes into my stream on his walk home from the library. He makes his grand entrance with a huge gift, the kind that’s announced across the entire live show to everyone involved.
He then immediately dives into conversation, sometimes writing the same things two or three times to ensure that I see them before they ascend beyond the field of my screen. I try very hard to respond to his prompting questions — but Anthony, in particular, loves to remind me how I should feel obligated to do so because of his “charitable” tendencies. In his mind, his large gifts buy him some strange privilege to the personal information I actively avoid when other fans ask questions — most importantly, my real name.
When I don’t respond to his prodding in the live stream, the constant pushes to reveal more than I’m willing to — “What’s your real name? Why are you hiding your identity?” — he jumps into my private messages, begging to be let in on my real life, like a real friend. He wants my social media profiles, an exclusive look that I refuse to give to anybody else through this platform — “just a name, just a name, just a name.” When I don’t acquiesce, he threatens to stop giving gifts, stop watching my stream, stop being my “number one fan.” In all honesty, I wouldn’t mind the peace and quiet; it would be much preferred to what feels like a swinging hammer thudding against the shaky walls of my private world.
But I don’t ever get the quiet. He always comes back the next day, his entrance a tired trick in what has become a wearisome game.
One day, I get an email from the company encouraging me to send my top gifters holiday presents. “It will let them feel your attention and send you more gifts in the future,” the email says, signed by a representative from BIGO. I ignore the prompt.
Three numbers run through my head: Seven hundred and fifty dollars. Fifty hours a month. Ten thousand beans. The first number, my base pay. The second, the time I sacrifice. The third, the minimum amount of beans I have to persuade out of my fans with my smiles and phony conversation.
The first answers the question “why?” Why would I do this, halfheartedly address crowds of hundreds of anonymous people online for hours every night, pretending to care? The fact of the matter is that they are the supporters of my lifestyle in New York City. I run through the maze for them, night after night, and the bigger my smile grows, and the more names I can remember and previous conversations I can recall, the lovelier I can manage to look — the bigger the dollop of peanut butter that awaits me at the other end.
But, what about them? What is their motivation to watch a young girl sit in her tiny shoebox of a bedroom and ramble for hours on end, no grand act or performance to get them through the night? This is a new kind of loneliness I’ve stumbled upon in my search for self-sustainment, the kind that people now seek to remedy in a wildly impersonal way.
For me, my job begins to bleed out of my bedroom and into my real life. It’s harder to go outside. With a viewer base in the thousands, I’m painfully aware of the number of people flowing past me on a daily basis that might have seen my live feed, might recognize me while I’m with my friends, my family, the people in my everyday life who have been kept far from the secret existence I live at night.
Paranoid and strained, I find myself gravitating toward LinkedIn calls for bartenders, waitresses, babysitters, but none fit into my schedule — I’m trapped between a day job, a night job, and school — not to mention they don’t pay as much without requiring a significant increase in physical labor.
At the same time, I find myself growing even more tired day by day. My conversations, much like the ones I hold during my live stream, lose meaning, and I’m left wondering what people want from me as opposed to what they’re actually saying.
I sit, poised at the edge of my bed, my back rigid and uncomfortably stiff. An influx of hostile new viewers with anonymous ID numbers instead of names bombard me with horrible, hurtful comments. They insult my looks, my intelligence; they tell me they want to rape me, to hear me moan. I can see my reflection in the screen — how my eyes are opened just a little too wide with horror, how my frozen smile looks ready to crack. There’s nothing I can say that won’t cause a more disastrous scene, so, only an hour into my stream, I politely tell my fans I’m calling it a night.
I had been told that there were administrators who monitored each and every stream on BIGO for safety reasons. Children were on the site — some of my viewers would even pipe up to tell me that they were 12, 13 years of age, to which I replied that they were too young to be hearing all my cussing.
As for the administrators, I had never thought of them as a farce until that night. I’d once been on the receiving end of an administrator’s investigation — I’d been required to do a “test stream,” much like an interview for a job. I’d been instructed to perform for a minimum of 15 minutes while higher-ups in the BIGO pyramid watched, disguised by aliases.
Less than five minutes in, my live feed was cut off, and a notification popped up on my screen, informing me that my performance had been deemed pornographic, and I would be banned from streaming until further notice. I had been doing nothing of the pornographic type. Simply sitting, talking, fully clothed. The administrators later reached out and told me there had been a glitch, that I was hired for the job.
Which is why I’m so surprised that nobody steps in when a stream of men threaten bodily harm against me.
When the camera shuts off, there’s only silence. It hits me that this job is more than a performance — my audience can reach me, too. It might be a one-way mirror, but it’s also a two-way receiver. Their words, thrown at me with such vehemence, are burned into my memory, rolling through my mind for the rest of the night, the week, the month.
My daily streams slowly dwindle from an hour a day to none. I find myself impatiently waiting for the next incident to occur, for my confidence in this job, and in this lifestyle, to fail me again. For the terror of realizing that I have eyes on me that I cannot see to settle in my bones. I decide to kill my contract with BIGO.
It’s been a month.
The administrators try to keep me on the leash by offering a higher-paying job with another company, LiveMe — same deal, different platform. I quietly decline, informing them that I’m prioritizing school and my mental health.
Sometimes I still receive notifications from BIGO on my phone — for some reason, I haven’t deleted the app yet, even though I never read what’s been sent to me. I assume it’s one of my followers trying to figure out why I disappeared from the platform with no warning. I’m not tempted to give them an explanation. I see no compelling reason to put myself back into such a vulnerable situation again, even if it is to simply say goodbye to my more loyal viewers who might have felt a personal, albeit false, connection to me.
More so than wiping any trace of me from the site itself, I’m worried about how the sudden contract termination will affect my financial situation. Too ashamed to ask my parents, too afraid to broach the subject of how I was once able to pay my own way and now cannot, I end up, tail between my legs, at the doorstep of my older brothers — one pays my electric bill, another my week’s food supply.
I’m still a senior at NYU. I still work for a living, in a more legitimate, safe environment as a journalist at a music publication. When I have conversations with the people I now work with, I can look them in their eyes, and my smile is all the more genuine because of it. I’ve reached the end of the maze — and I’m done running through it.