Live streaming, already a booming industry in China, is experiencing a new wave of popularity with many cities locked down and millions staying home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus which has killed more than 2,000 in the country as of Wednesday.

While the outbreak has hit China’s economy overall, a strong move from offline to online activity from those confined to their homes has boosted the fortunes of some tech companies, including those with live-streaming platforms.

Short video platforms with live-streaming features saw a sharp increase in user activity in the first few months of the year, according to a QuestMobile report this week.

Live-streamers are enjoying even greater popularity than before in China, with many staying home due to the coronavirus outbreak. (Picture: Screenshots from Douyin, Taobao)

Over the recent Lunar New Year period, users on Douyin – the mainland Chinese version of TikTok – spent an average of 99 minutes on the app each day, compared to 67 minutes during the festive season last year.

Kuaishou, its closest competitor, also saw a rise in average daily usage time from 44 minutes to 71 minutes during the same period, the report said.

With the increase in viewer traffic, one Douyin user literally made money in his sleep.

The amateur actor, who goes by the username Yuansan, first live-streamed himself sleeping on February 9, saying he wanted to verify whether he snores. He woke up to find that his stream had attracted hundreds of thousands of views and about 800,000 new followers for his channel.

Viewers have reportedly given him virtual gifts worth up to 76,800 yuan (US$11,000) as tips.

A repeat performance attracted more than 18 million viewers, baffling even Yuansan: “I was bored so I decided to live-stream myself sleeping, but I didn’t think that [internet users] would be even more bored than I was,” he said in a follow-up video. “Everyone in the live-streaming room is pushing me to sleep, but it’s 5 o’clock in the afternoon!”

Traditional farmers in China, struggling to sell their produce through physical markets due to the outbreak, are also increasingly turning to live-streaming platforms to clear stocks.

One live stream on Taobao, for instance, helped a farmer sell nearly 5,000 kilograms of tomatoes, 7,500 kilograms of cucumbers and 3,000 kilograms of strawberries.

Taobao is an ecommerce site owned by Alibaba, the parent company of the South China Morning Post. Its live-streaming feature saw rapid growth this month, with the number of live broadcast rooms and live-stream events surging 100% and 110% year-on-year respectively, according to Alibaba.

Chinese companies are pioneers in the ecommerce live-streaming trend, with prominent platforms such as Alibaba, JD.com and Mogu using the feature to great success years before Western competitors such as Amazon began experimenting with it.

One independent internet analyst was skeptical that the sharp increase in traffic to live-streaming sites would be sustained in the longer term, though: “Once the outbreak is under control, the traditional offline industry will bounce back,” said Zhang Dingding, the former head of Beijing-based research firm Sootoo Institute.

“Conversely, the rapid online traffic growth will moderate to a more reasonable level.”

For now, internet users in the world’s biggest online population remain glued to their screens. And it is not all about entertainment or shopping: some are also taking advantage of free live-streamed courses by China’s prestigious Tsinghua University and Peking University on Douyin to keep their minds active as schools remain closed.

“I can’t believe I am in a Tsinghua University class,” one enthusiastic student commented on the live stream of a class on how to write an engineering paper.

(Abacus is a unit of South China Morning Post.)