This is a jaw-dropper of a documentary that's a revealing must-watch for parents -- but for teens, maybe not. Initially, People's Republic of Desire plays like an episode of Vice, alerting audiences to an online phenomenon they're likely unaware of. But then it morphs into a real-life episode of Black Mirror, which is completely the intention of the film's creator, Hao Wu. The opening scene is an attention grabber: A bunch of attractive young women get livestreaming tips that will help them ensure that patrons give them financial gifts: "Keep your patrons happy, then you'll live like goddesses." It sounds like some sort of sugar daddy situation, and in a way, it is. Wu lays out exactly how livestreaming on YY is a slippery slope that many won't possibly realize the danger of until they're in too deep.
Livestreaming hasn't caught on in this way or at this level in the United States, and maybe it never will. The docu shows how YY exploits China's social class system, with some hosts plucked out of poverty to find huge fame. Their "zero to hero" stories give hope to viewers, many of whom are part of the single, lonely, working class who call themselves the "diaosi" (it cruelly translates to "losers" and means "poor and unattractive," but the term has been embraced the same way that Americans have reclaimed "nerds"). The hosts get paid by soliciting money from their viewers; the bigger the "gift," the more likely they'll engage with the donor, giving that person their own moment in the spotlight. Nouveau-riche "patrons" give gifts in the multi-thousands, leading viewers to cheer them on -- and to patrons becoming celebrities in their own right. The documentary argues that YY is damaging this young population by giving hosts, fans, and patrons everything they think they want: hopes, dreams, attention, community, status, money, fame. But, says People's Republic of Desire, YY is a tech-age Rumpelstiltskin: It gives gold to its users, who are happy in the short run, but ultimately it takes a piece of them. Wu doesn't tell viewers what to think, but to adults, YY's toxic pyramid scheme will be clear as day. Teens, on the other hand, may think, "Where can I sign up?"