On a recent afternoon in Los Angeles, the 15-year-old Bryce Xavier went to the Olive Garden with his mom, pulled out his phone and broadcast lunch. Across the country, teenagers’ phones lit up with a push notification: Bryce was live.
The phone framed Bryce in close-up. His mom sat off-camera across the table; her son had really come to eat with his fans. Tens of thousands of them poured into a virtual chat room that layered over his image. A bright stream of emoji floated up the side of Bryce’s face, the product of hundreds of fingers tapping the “like” button at the same time.
Bryce is a star on Live.ly, a year-old live-streaming platform with a core audience of teenage girls. Within three months of its release, according to the mobile app data firm SurveyMonkey Intelligence, Live.ly had unseated Periscope as the iPhone’s top live-streaming app. Bryce is a budding multihyphenate — he identifies as a singer, actor, model and violinist — but he has recently distinguished himself as a Live.ly personality, spending nearly every day wading through a virtual crowd of anonymous fans. Since joining Live.ly last summer, he’s accumulated over 33 million bits of “emoji-love,” the platform’s main metric of success. His most dedicated fans also ship him physical emblems like teddy bears, packets of Sour Patch Kids and posters inscribed with their internet handles and notes like: “I love you. Follow me.” A few months ago, he stopped attending school and started home schooling to accommodate the demands of his social media and entertainment work.
In the streaming of Bryce’s life, lunch is a recurring event. He calls it “A Bite With Bryce.” “It’s like we’re going on a lunch date,” Bryce told me later. “I go to my favorite places, and then they can become my fans’ favorite places, too, through the phone screen.”
Live streaming has been hailed as an “authentic” respite from the artificial projections of other social platforms. The rise of the posed Instagram shot, the Pinterest lifestyle mirage and the slickly edited Musical.ly video have created an appetite for the raw feed: live video that can’t be edited, filtered or deleted before it’s beamed out to the world. Common Sense Media, a parent-focused media watchdog, has called live streaming “the closest thing to hanging out in person.” But live streaming’s rough aesthetic is no more “real” than the shimmering projections of other social apps, and Live.ly is loaded with features that gamify conversations, commodify human interactions and powerfully mold a vision of teenage life.
Online influencers occupy the gap between celebrities and friends, and skate between mass cultural performances and moments of perceived accessibility. At wildly popular national meet-and-greet tours like Magcon and Digitour, fans can pay to claim hugs and selfies from their online idols; Live.ly digitizes that experience. It feels a little like a spontaneous fan club meeting. Videos vanish instantly, which creates a vibe of temporal exclusivity: When a favorite user goes live, it’s like being invited to a show that only you and a few dozen to thousand people can see.
Plus, fans can have questions and comments answered in real time. (They are often some variation of “How old are you?” “Where do you live?” and “Will you go out with me?”) All of that elevates forms of extemporaneous, unstructured play that would feel amateurish on other platforms. You’ll often find groups of girls sitting on the floor, mixing up homemade slime, or boys running their hands through their hair as if they’re staring into the bedroom mirror. One account trails a home’s four cats as they prowl countertops and bat curtains.
But the platform can also flatten human interaction into its shallowest forms. It is hard to say how hundreds of strangers spamming mash notes at a boy at the Olive Garden constitutes a distillation of the authentic teenage experience. (There’s nothing particularly “fake” about social media expression, either — it is artificial much in the way of autobiographical novels or self-portraits.) And after all, the platforms that encourage the building of a stylized online self, and the ones that compel users to reveal their “real” lives, are both built by the same companies: Twitter created Periscope, Facebook made Facebook Live, and Live.ly comes from Musical.ly, the music video app that’s become an epicenter of teen performance and micro-celebrity since its 2015 debut. (Musical.ly was where Bryce first built his online following; his dance moves and creative edits made him stand out.)
This has the trappings of an old capitalist trick: Create a problem, sell its solution. Live streaming isn’t a repudiation of the personal brand. It’s an extension of it. And on Live.ly, the stakes of the performance are heightened, because there, unlike most other teen-centered social networks, you can actually get paid.
This is a boon for online influencers like Bryce, who work hard to bring a high volume of traffic to these sites, and deserve compensation. (It’s good for Musical.ly, too, which takes a 20 percent cut, and the phone’s app store, which takes 30 percent.)
Bryce told me that virtual gifts bring him between $100 and $1,200 a broadcast, depending on the timing and length of the show. (Brands also ship him merchandise to wear on camera.) In May, the top 10 broadcasters on Live.ly brought in an average of $16,000 each. But the monetization of Live.ly has also quickly turned it into a highly commodified zone, a frenetic virtual marketplace where social media performers angle at cashing in on their elusive celebrity status and fans shell out for the illusion of greater intimacy. Everything follows the money.
On Live.ly, users pay real cash for Live.ly coins that can be traded for virtual “gifts” that are delivered to broadcasters midstream in the hopes of extracting some kind of recognition from them. When Bryce appears on Live.ly, fans can conjure his image in a way that feels similar to calling up a friend on FaceTime. But the fans who join the stream to interact with him are relegated to the realm of text and symbol. He’s the star of the raw video; they’re frantically tapping the “like” button and thumbing out comments that zoom past faster than he can possibly read them.
That’s where the coins come in. Buy a gift, and your user name will be lifted above the textual scrum, beaming a bright cartoon animation and signal that you’ve paid anywhere from 5 cents to $50 for the chance to catch the broadcaster’s eye. Popular live streamers can conjure expensive gifts on command by promising to recognize the most generous contributors with live shout-outs or with a social media follow.
Cash donations are so central to the Live.ly community that the biggest spenders are ranked on the app, turning spending into its own competition. One day this month, the No. 1 contributor shelled out 120,000 Live.ly coins — the equivalent of around $1,200. At the meager end of the Live.ly economy, penniless teenagers toil to scrape together enough to buy the cheapest gifts. Those who can’t afford to buy coins can watch 30-second ads to earn the equivalent of 1 cent in Live.ly currency — an exchange that makes the attention economy undergirding the web explicit.
When animated gifts are flying, the authentic streamer is leveled into a kind of avatar who can be paid to perform certain actions. And with tens of thousands of people clamoring for recognition, it’s often the simplest and least meaningful requests that end up being honored. (Bryce recently complied with a fan’s request to say “toy boat”10 times.)
Nowhere is this more obvious than among one particularly category of Live.ly star: kids. Across the app, children are learning to perform back flips on command or dab on cue when a big contribution comes in. One girl’s parents recently live streamed her playing a game on her iPad. Another mom live streamed her kid’s preschool graduation.
Bryce told me that he looks forward to live streaming, and that — even without a regular school schedule — the biggest challenge is finding the time to fit it into his day. But for Live.ly stars half his age, live streaming isn’t an extracurricular activity or a career path: It’s something that happens to them. There’s something viscerally destabilizing about those videos, which reveal the moments when unsuspecting children at play collide with the demands of capitalist exploitation. Now that’s real.