Remember the teenage girl who spent approximately US$75,000 of her mother’s account on tips for live streaming hosts? It looks like she’s not the only one spending on tips and virtual gifts more than she should have.

Before we go on, some background: Live streaming is huge in China. Deloitte estimates that the country’s live streaming industry made US$4.4 billion in 2018. Some live streaming stars can make hundreds of thousands of dollars every week (most don’t). But not much is known about the motivations that drive people to give their money to live streaming hosts. And sometimes the spending can end up somewhat shady.

Xiaoming (alias), a young live streaming fan, describes how she ended up giving out gifts to her favorite hosts.

“Every time the host would get a gift he would be very enthusiastic which will likely satisfy your vanity,” she says. “He'd make you feel valued.”

Xiaoming says she started watching live streaming because she was bored and started giving out small rewards. Her favorite hosts were male, handsome and humorous. As she started giving gifts more often her account rating would rise: The hosts would welcome her into their live streaming feeds with more enthusiasm.

“Sometimes you would feel embarrassed not to give a gift when they flatter you,” said Xiaoming.

With female hosts and male fans, things can get even more intriguing. One user under the alias “Scotlwhite” told us how one night after a couple of drinks, he ended up spending almost US$300 on four virtual rockets. He blames this on his own impulsive behavior.

“It’s vanity. You show that you’re rich and willing to pay for the hostess,” he said.

And the female hosts are likely counting on male egos: Some bloggers have suggested that hosts actually work in teams which send out virtual gifts hoping to stimulate competition among male viewers. And sometimes, the high-spending pays off in real life: The female host will reward the highest bidder – with a date.

Virtual rockets and cars sometimes buy more than attention. (Picture: SCMP/Simon Song)

An industry insider – who prefers to stay anonymous – said that a minority of live streamers will offer their personal contacts to their viewers in exchange for gifts. However, the weapon here is teasing: Only a small percentage will actually follow through by going out with their fans. This practice is even encouraged by agencies that recruit live streaming hosts, said the insider.

But often times it’s the hosts themselves who get confronted with users asking for a little too much. Victor Zheng, a Chinese-American vlogger with over 10,000 Weibo followers, talked about his own encounters with ardent fans which can end up well… pretty awkward.

“Someone sent me a private message offering US$100 an hour for me to strip. FYI it was a male fan who asked me for that service,” said Zheng. He also says he’s received plenty of nudes – both from male and female fans.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that live streaming fans are only in it for pleasures of the flesh. In fact, most users come to live streamers out of a simple desire to be entertained and they give money out of appreciation for their content, according to Zheng.

Other live streaming professionals agree. Chinese social media marketing expert Lauren Hallanan told us that as much as users have different motivations for gifting, all of them come to streaming sites knowing that they will give money.

“On Chinese live streaming apps, users have to connect a payment method to whatever platform they’re using and then purchase a package of virtual currency,” said Hallanan. “So, before they gift, they are already in the mindset that they would like to send gifts.”