From Craigslist to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, the internet is full of opportunities for people with a surplus of free time to earn extra money on the side. For a special breed of gig workers in China, though, extra income isn’t what matters most. 

These are people seeking to make a joke out of their hilariously expendable expertise. 

Here’s one idea: Have your pet hold up a note card that says anything your client wants. All it takes is the ability to write on a piece of paper and have your animal friend sit still for a few seconds. Easy, right? Yes. But would anyone actually place an order? Maybe not.

A description reads, “Life is tough for a chinchilla. Selling my talent to earn some money for snacks.” Price: 5 yuan (US$0.7). (Picture: Xianyu)

Giving a presentation at work or in class but too lazy to build your own PowerPoint slides? Pay as little as US$0.14 to have someone else do it for you.

“Feeling thankful to my boss for always assigning me to make PowerPoint slides. Now when the going gets tough, I have one skill in my pocket to help me make a few bucks.” (Picture: Xianyu)

These listings are often only half-serious attempts to actually make money, and they circulate as a kind of insider meme on Xianyu -- Alibaba’s secondhand trading app. Participants commonly use the word “mai yi” (“selling skills”) to describe what they do.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

The term traditionally invokes images of street performers doing puppet shows or magic tricks for scanty donations. And there’s an implication that anyone who engages in “mai yi” is admirable because they refuse to give up on life despite challenging circumstances. The gravity of the term is part of what makes the Xianyu memes funny to some.

Most of the sellers I talked to told me they hadn’t actually made any money off their listings. And it didn’t seem like they were desperate to fill their wallets. Mostly, it was just an effortless way for them to find an easy side hustle without investing too much time. The proliferation of digital payment services like Alipay also means setting up an account is no harder than a few taps. 

“Just trying to have fun and practice my skills,” said a user who offered to build PowerPoint slides for high schoolers and undergraduates for 30 yuan (US$4.2). “No one has bought [my service]. ” 

“I just want to give my chinchilla some extra allowance,” said another user, whose product listing stated that the animal was hoping to buy some treats with the money it earns. No one had placed an order for service so far, I was told. Thinking I’ve made worse use of US$0.7 in my life, I decided to spend some money to help feed this adorable little creature. 

My tiny donation promptly earned me five pictures of an obliging chinchilla gripping a note card. Written on it were the exact words that I requested. I asked what Xiao Ming is buying with its hard-earned money.

“Apple wood sticks,” it said.

Fantastic dinner choice.

No animals were harmed in the making of this story.

Not everyone was as committed to their businesses. One seller offered a badly cooked meal of scrambled eggs and tomatoes for 5 yuan (US$0.7). I placed my order but was handed a refund just two hours later, without explanation. That’s when I realized maybe I took these jokes way too seriously.

In any case, much of Xianyu is still primarily dedicated to selling ordinary secondhand goods, like smartphones and books. That’s not to say it’s just a place for transactions, though. Social interaction also plays a big part. 

In a section called Fish Pond, Xianyu users with similar interests can comment on each other’s blog posts and product listings, much like they would on any social platform. 

“Cute! How do you make it so obedient?” asked one person in one of the listings for the sign-holding chinchilla. 

Another seller of electronics shared a photo of his gaming PC setup, resulting in a thread of enthusiastic replies. In the “Food and Travel” section, a teacher in her twenties posted vacation photos from the Thai resort island of Phuket, drawing dozens of likes.

Younger users appear to be particularly receptive to the idea. Around half of those who’ve used secondhand trading platforms were 24 years old or younger, with most of them living in first- and second-tier cities, according to a report last year from consultancy Sootoo Research Institute. A third of users were 25 to 30 years old.

Those who gather on used-goods platforms aren’t necessarily cash-strapped either. The growth of secondhand trading coincides with China’s economic growth, said consultancy firm iiMedia Research. As people can afford to buy more stuff, unused items start to pile up at home, cluttering living spaces.

When you think about it, the idea of selling spare items isn’t actually that different from hawking services. Both allow people to make money off existing resources -- at little to no cost. And however useless an item or skill may seem, the hope is that demand will somehow exist in the vast sea of the internet.

But even if there are no buyers, it could still make for a good joke.