Acting Their Age

Elderly Chinese social media influencers have become widely popular by promoting scientific knowledge

By Zhang Yan

“What happens to a boiled egg and a raw egg when they drop deep into the sea?” asked Wu Yuren, a retired physics professor of Tongji University. “Will they be crushed or pulverized under the pressure?” Eggs in hand, she raised the question for those watching her videos promoting physics education.

Wu Yuren, a retired professor from Tongji University. (VCG)

Wu became a video blogger and gained 2 million followers after retiring from Tongji University, where she was a professor of physics. Her experience helps her explain abstract and difficult physics concepts through simple and interesting scientific experiments. Her fans admiringly call her “Grandma Wu.”

A group of elderly science vloggers like Wu are gaining popularity as social media influencers.

Coming of Age

In China, influencers with more years under their belt are referred to as “silver-hair internet influencers.” According to the seventh national census, the population of China aged 60 and above reached 260 million in 2020, accounting for 18.7 percent of the country’s total population. Older people eventually got on the internet, and many elderly influencers emerged. The 48th Statistical Reports on Internet Development in China shows that as of June 2021, internet users aged 60 and above reached 123 million, making up 12.2 percent of the total 1.01 billion Chinese internet users.

Mrs. Wei teaches how to make Dragon Boat Festival sachets online from Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, on June 15, 2020. Mrs. Wei began teaching doll-making skills for free online soon after learning how to use live streaming platforms. (VCG)

According to the 2021 Silver Hair Economic Insight Report released by QuestMobile, as of October 2021, about 195.23 million silver-hair users had registered on platforms publishing short mobile videos, year-on-year growth of 25.3 percent, among whom 111.53 million watched and produced short videos on TikTok, year-on-year growth of 49.6 percent.

Hu Hui, an 80-year-old square dancer, became popular on the internet by posting videos of her dancing in Jiaxing City, Zhejiang Province. (VCG)

Not satisfied with just watching younger people’s work, silver-hair internet users began producing their own content on short video platforms. On December 9, 2021, Bilibili, a Chinese video sharing website, released the 2021 Report on Bilibili Producers, which revealed that 13 percent of the site’s video producers are aged 31 and above, up 80 percent year-on-year. Bilibili’s report also mentioned the trend of more and more elderly people becoming original video producers. The number of producers aged 40 and above increased 434 percent year-on-year.

An elderly Uygur livestreams the skill necessary to make Xinjiang Atlas silk from the Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, Xinjiang, on April 14, 2020. (VISUAL.PEOPLE.CN)

The silver-hair social media influencers are categorized as either life-sharing, fashion conscious, or promoting science and technologies. With abundant experience and knowledge, many elderly internet influencers have found a second prime on the internet. Wu is a TikTok producer promoting scientific knowledge. She used a broomstick to demonstrate tracking cosmic rays, deployed balloons and plastic bottles to show how the Shenzhou-13 spaceship was launched, and explained the function of China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope, dubbed “China Sky Eye,” by using a wok. Many internet users have made humorous comments on her videos to show their respect.

“For the first time in my life, I can easily understand what a physics teacher is talking about.”

“I would never get confused when studying mathematics, physics, or chemistry if I had a teacher like Grandma Wu.”

“It is amazing that I am taking physics classes on TikTok.”

Many elderly people like Wu are engaged in promoting scientific knowledge or techniques on the internet. Boasting good knowledge and experience, they are adept at using humorous and simple language to teach hard-to-understand stuff. Explaining profound theories with simple language and vivid examples has enabled professors like Wu to become “top home teachers on video websites.”

Silver-hair social media influencers teaching vocational skills have also won many fans. “You must apply potato starch to make Guo Bao Rou [Fried Pork in Scoop, a signature dish from Northeast China],” explained Zheng Xiusheng, a 66-year-old chef. “Other kinds of starch cannot create the right crispy quality for the pork.” Zheng used to work in Beijing Hotel preparing state banquets. He was also a chief chef for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Now 65, Sun Lixin used to work in Beijing Huadu Hotel as a chef, and he is now a consultant for the dishes to be served in Zhangjiakou competition zone of Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. Zheng and Sun opened an account called “Lao Fan Gu”, or “Seasoned Chefs,” and have published over 500 short videos to teach cooking skills. Whether home cooking or state banquet dishes, they outline every detail to their followers and answer almost every question raised in the comments. Their account now has more than 10 million followers.

The followers of such elderly social media influencers focus more on content than slick visual effects. If the content is practical and easy to understand, the producer gets followed. More and more internet users are attracted by knowledge and skills rather than pure entertainment.

Promotion of Scientific Knowledge

Wu Yuren began promoting science education 16 years ago. At first, very few students were interested in her classes. After continuous improvement, her classes are presented in Shanghai schools, communities, and exhibition halls. Wu noticed the rapid development and the great potential of short video platforms and decided to promote science education to the rest of China. In 2018, Wu recruited her student Guan Dayong and 10 other doctors and professors to establish a team to harness new media forms to promote science education.

In January 2019, the School of Journalism and Communication of Tsinghua University, China Science Daily Press and ByteDance jointly released the Inclusive Benefits of Knowledge: Report on Short Videos and Knowledge Dissemination. The report showed that in 2018, knowledge-sharing videos increased rapidly and became highly popular on the internet. Knowledge-sharing vloggers were becoming a new type of internet influencer. Short videos allow more people to participate in knowledge education and dissemination, promoting universal access to knowledge.

According to the report, works promoting scientific knowledge are the most popular type of knowledge-sharing video because they have the highest average number of followers and receive the most views and likes. Bloggers promoting content related to science and examination have the largest number of fans on average, and the number of bloggers teaching skills is the highest among all video producers.

When Wu’s team began publishing their short videos on platforms in 2018, the number of views of each video ranged from hundreds to thousands. Although the dissemination scope was already wider than offline classes, their works were not very popular in relative terms. Wu kept exploring and improving approaches to teaching, which greatly facilitated her eventual popularity on the internet.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a lot of information and news was difficult to verify. People were in urgent need of professional, clear, traceable, and high-quality information, so China’s official rumor-refuting platform became greatly popular the moment it went live. Knowledge-based content increased significantly during and after the pandemic, and people’s requirement for content gradually changed from “interesting” to “useful.”

At the same time, the internet’s role as an educational tool has been highlighted by so many school classes moving online. Since the Chinese government rolled out the decision to ease the burden of excessive homework and off-campus tutoring for students, students have more time for independent learning and they began turning to online platforms to study.

According to the recent 2021 Report on Bilibili Producers, over 183 million people study on the Bilibili site, evidencing that the era of online learning is arriving. Among all Professional User Generated Videos (PUGVs) on Bilibili, videos of the “pan-knowledge” content account for as high as 49 percent. In 2021, the number of producers in the Knowledge Zone increased by 92 percent, covering multiple fields such as biology, medicine, history, and literature.

In addition to scientific and literature knowledge, videos teaching vocational skills also became popular. On December 7, the Qianlong Think Tank of the Beijing News Press released a 2021 Report on Content Creators focusing on Baijiahao, a content production platform launched by Baidu. The report showed that the number of blue-collar video producers such as craftsmen and maintenance workers increased by 208 percent year-on-year. Their professional explanations have won them countless followers and new business. It was inevitable that elderly professionals, with abundant knowledge and experience, would become new social media influencers by producing high-quality content.

AgeClub is a new media company focusing on business innovation and venture capital incubation in the elderly consumption market. Zhou Chao, content director of AgeClub, said that compared to young people, the biggest advantage of the elderly is their life experience. They tend to have deeper insights than young people, so the elderly have advantages not only in promoting knowledge but also giving advice on family and relationship issues. “Older people may not post as frequently as young people, but they can still win a great number of followers with high-quality, rich content,” said Zhou Chao.

Zhou Qing’an, deputy dean of the School of Journalism and Communication of Tsinghua University, opined that middle-aged and elderly social media influencers became popular because they meet multiple needs of both video producers and viewers. Their videos reflect the charisma of elderly people and provide emotional support for many viewers. “The great popularity of middle-aged and elderly social media influencers has both economic and social significance,” said Zhou. “The trend is beneficial for promoting both care for the elderly and positive attitudes about society.”

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