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Live streaming: a carnival of equal dialogue

LIU ZHAN | 2017-07-13 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Cheng Lianghuan live-streams her daily life as a model.

The latest craze on Chinese social media is live streaming via smartphones and tablet computers. As multimedia platforms become increasingly integrated, live streams have the potential to go viral overnight, creating a carnival of the masses.

There is a wide variety of streamed content, and an increasingly diverse set of users is emerging. Users of live streaming hail from metropolises as well as second- and third-tier cities and rural regions.

The users of various live-streaming platforms embrace this online space. Live streaming fuels the desire of ordinary internet users to participate, creating the illusion that individuals have claimed sovereignty over themselves. However, a close investigation of live-streamed content indicates that it is still mostly shows that use these platforms. These shows are centered on personal tastes and dominated by entertainment and consumption.

The carnival of live streaming provides individual internet users with a ritual experience that enables them to temporarily transcend reality. All kinds of habits related to media are all shaped by basic needs, which provide them with the experience of coordination, interaction, trust and freedom.


Social panorama
Live streaming goes viral on mobile internet platforms and then is disseminated among hundreds of millions of users as a form of internet culture. The various live streaming platforms not only offer a stage for performance and venting personal feelings but also collectively provide a panoramic picture of society.

The performance of live streamers is no longer intended for random private sharing. Streamers are paying increasing attention to the choice of lighting, makeup, costumes and backgrounds as well as specific themes. These streamers are packaged in a seemingly grassroots style, but many of them serve as an online face for individuals and businesses behind them. The popularity of smartphones has provided them with a broad audience. In this way, live streaming has become a carnival ritual that allows users to escape the drudgery of daily life.

With the online platforms serving as the promoter behind the curtain, the streamers, who are mostly ordinary people, become online celebrities. Their stories are successful journeys from poverty to wealth. In this way, live streaming acts as a stage for transforming ordinary people into online celebrities.

The carnival has rich and complicated connotations and various forms. One of the main features of a carnival is mass participation. The carnival by definition is a popular, festive and all-inclusive intimate interaction that all people can participate in.

The public square used to be the center of popular festivities. But with the proliferation of smartphones, the platforms based on these media create online social spaces that inherit the role played by public squares in the past. These platforms allow the hosts and audience to dialogue. And audience members can send gifts to the host, providing a revenue stream. This interactive experience fuels the enthusiasm of internet users for live streaming.

The expression methods of live streaming are rapidly upgrading. However, the scenes and content on those platforms are all rooted in the framework of those live-streaming platforms, without which no performance is meaningful. The performances include personal performances by the streamers, showing off oneself, provoking others and exaggerated actions and speeches for attention.

Though it is founded on new technology, online live streaming, as a ritual still, has basic features of traditional rituals. Rituals are first of all patterned behaviors. Live streamers show similar verbal and behavioral patterns. The audiences of the live streaming are also conditioned by the streamers to have fixed behavioral patterns. The framework of ritual is established during the process of two-way interaction.

On the other hand, the performance and interaction only have the features of rituals when they are performed on the live-streaming platforms. Live streaming provides the hosts and audiences with a space in which to open their hearts to each other in a way both true and false. The hosts show the details of their lives and pour out their hearts to the audiences in a calculated way, which has temporary healing and comforting effects on some viewers.


The leisure time for an individual has gradually become compressed in contemporary society. In the struggle of modern life, the masses face confusion and anxiety brought by social transformation. People have the desire to escape the pressures of work and daily life, which stimulates the development of various forms of modern entertainment. The carnival of live streaming has emerged against such a background. As a profitable product of the entertainment industry, live streaming offers a platform for self-projection and self-aggrandizement to ordinary people who, in real life, are constrained by the system and social norms and do not have channels for changing their lives or fates.

Live streaming also appeals to the audiences by playing the role of a stress-release valve for them. Both the hosts and the audiences are able to release their emotions through these platforms, which demonstrates the mythical power of this ritual. This mythical power is the “right to equal dialogue” that characterizes the ritual of carnivals as well as the ideas deep in the social sub-consciousness in terms of transcending social stratification.

This change is in accordance with the spirit of the carnival suggested by Mikhail Bakhtin, which advocates dialogism and rejects the monopolistic role that monologue consciousness plays in the high realm of human spirit and reason. The ritual of live streaming is exactly the type of platform in which people can reverse their identities and classes, achieving an “equal dialogue.”

Live streaming is like a carnival on the online platforms, which is presented to the mass in the form of a modern ritual. Ritual, as a social behavior, can never survive without the cultural soil that breeds it as well as the social activities of humanity. The significance of this ritual can only be revealed with the wide range of mass participation and certain social forms.

The progress of media technology has promoted the development of multiple live-streaming platforms. These platforms have massive audiences and various forms of expression, which makes them perfect stages for performing rituals. Live streaming, as an internet carnival, is not the modern evolution of religious rituals, nor is it a carnival in the purest sense.

The consistent carnivals of live streaming are both driven by the desires of modern people to vent their feelings and the commercial powers behind the curtain. The owners of capital affect the operation of the performances and subtly convert people’s desire for social interaction and entertainment into profits. Some people praise the social media era as the advent of a democratized mass culture. Particularly, social media outlets are more egalitarian because they do not discriminate between viewers. The free access of the masses to new media without the constraints of classification presents people with a utopian illusion.

However, as part of the modern cultural industry, live streaming is more notably controlled by business capital. Various forms of live streaming satisfy our needs for leisure and entertainment by creating an atmosphere of “carnival rituals,” prompting us to view the social structures established by media environment as reality. It satisfies our current desires. We see only the luxuriant performances it presents to us and ignore the miseries of our real life. It offers us the soft addictive drug of the carnival spectacle so that people will indulge themselves in the vanity and satisfaction brought by live streaming.


People indulge in manufactured pleasure. As a researcher on cultural phenomena, I cannot help asking: Is every live stream we watch that significant to us? Should we live in a space constructed by media rituals and give up our recognition of a real world? Carnivalization, in essence, is based on carnivalesque way of experiencing the world, utopian dreams, the spirit of extensive equal dialogue and openness. It provides new comprehension of all seemingly absurd and surprising things, organizing them into the scenes of all kinds of carnivals.

It is obvious that live streaming cannot provide a carnival where ordinary people can obtain the rights of equal dialogue. It can only serve to provide excitement to the dull and trivial daily lives of the masses. There is no doubt that live streaming provides people with carnivalesque ritual experience and people are enthusiastically participating in it.

However, live streaming should also be regulated by all these online platforms and authorities, preventing possible violations against the law. The performance and the interaction between the hosts and audiences should also abide by the laws and regulations. In this way, the maximum freedom of expression can be guaranteed.  

Liu Zhan is from the School of Communication, East China University of Political Science and Law.