October 27, 2023
BEIJING – “Every final exam period in my dormitory is accompanied by the rhythmic sounds of electronic Chinese temple blocks. If you were to judge solely by the sounds, it would be hard to tell whether you were in a dorm room or a temple,” said Wu Xinyue, a student at Zhejiang Chinese Medical University in Hangzhou.
Knocking on Chinese temple blocks, or muyu, is a practice which is rooted in Buddhism and Taoism and aimed at helping practitioners purify their minds and enhance their spiritual journeys. Nowadays, young people have merged this religious ritual with electronic technology, transforming it into a new method for stress relief and blessings.
Wu is the first person in her dorm room to learn about and use the muyu app. You can either make the knocking by tapping the screen of the phone or tablet, or the app can generate the rhythm of knocking itself. Since Wu discovered this app, it has gradually replaced her usual “rituals” of praying for good grades by, for example, sharing lucky koi fish posts on her social media account. Whether it’s before an exam or when facing life’s challenges, Wu would instinctively tap on her phone for a sense of reassurance.
She believes that the significance of the electronic Chinese temple blocks lies not in solving difficulties but in bringing hope and motivation, thereby prompting action. “It’s more like we are striking ourselves instead of tapping on muyu,” she said. “All positive outcomes stem from our own efforts.”
In the realm of online shopping, a burgeoning type of product is extending conventional consumer expectations: Money can not only buy material possessions but also directly deal with emotions. As the traditional boundaries between the physical and the digital blur, the allure of these novel experiences is becoming stronger. Young people are starting to break down their emotional needs into keywords, typing them into search boxes.
Guo Xing, a 25-year-old freelancer, was having mental problems back in 2020 when she was facing the graduation season. This is usually the most stressful period for college students, when the uncertainty of the future and the gap between campus life and the real world often trap many students in a swamp of anxiety. Not having enough money to go to off-line therapy sessions, Guo purchased an online text-based psychological counseling service offered by Knowyourself, a WeChat public platform that shares psychological knowledge.
Following the guidance in the user interface of the service, Guo wrote down her anxieties and confusion and submitted them to the staff. Shortly after, she received a response that not only offered comfort and understanding but also included a task: to jot down three good things she accomplished each day before bedtime.
While it did go some way to alleviating her immediate anxieties, Guo found the long-term positive impact to be relatively limited. “Text-based communication restricts the ability of service providers to perceive consumers’ emotions and weakens the emotional support they aim to convey,” she said.
Liu Weidan, 19, and Gan Xingchi, 21, are both college students who have problems finishing their homework on time. They have purchased online supervision services from a Taobao store, which cost a few yuan for a day, about 40 yuan for a week and about 200 yuan for a whole month.
Gan finds the price reasonable, especially considering its effectiveness. “It’s very helpful for procrastinators like me,” she said.
Based on the learning plan provided by the customers, the online supervisor will send reminders at specific times, monitor their progress, and conduct occasional checks. The reminders can be by text or audio, with audio reminders being slightly more expensive. When noticing any signs of slacking, the supervisor will offer motivation, and will give praise after the customers successfully complete the plan.
“I’ve found that cultivating self-discipline is very difficult for me, and relying on external discipline seems to be a quicker route to achieving my goals,” said Liu, who has also been quite satisfied with the results of the supervision service and has even recommended it to her friends.
But Liu also realized that, as effective as it is, the service is not the ultimate solution. “I think the role of supervisors is similar to that of teachers. The outcome of someone’s study still largely depends on individual willingness to learn.”
With emotional support becoming a significant driving force behind the online purchases of youth, some young entrepreneurs with a keen sense of market trends and technology have capitalized on these commercial opportunities by turning emotions into a lucrative business.
Jiang Nan, a 27-year-old working in e-commerce, has strong empathetic skills. During the pandemic, his accidental venture into offering virtual companionship products led to his successful opening of an online store.
One of the services that the store provides is listening to buyers as they vent their everyday life woes and offering psychological comfort in response.
“Perhaps due to pride, an increasing number of young people are hesitant to open up to those around them. However, virtual products similar to ‘tree holes’ can serve as a kind of psychological refuge, enabling them to express their emotions,” Jiang said.
The store’s highest-selling service is a chat service designed to resolve love-related issues.
Jiang shared a case involving a client who was making a purchase on behalf of a friend. According to the client, the friend was suffering from being “love blind”, meaning she had lost the ability to make deliberate decisions, and the client felt unable to persuade her effectively. “Oh my!” the client wrote in the comments after her friend regained clarity of thought. “The staff were like the voice of my conscience, deserving a five-star rating. The price is truly worth it.”
Jiang’s product review page is filled with similar feedback. It’s likely a case of the saying, “The spectators see the chess game better than the players.” Jiang explained that when someone finds themselves ensnared in an unhealthy romantic relationship, unlike the consoling words of close friends and family, objective analysis and advice from strangers can act as a bracing dose of reality, jolting them into a more deliberative state of mind.
For Jiang, managing a store like this brings a sense of fulfillment that far exceeds mere financial gains. “Customer satisfaction is the best reward for the store’s efforts. I hope to collaborate with my colleagues to assist more young customers in alleviating their mental burdens,” he said.
Lisa (pseudonym), who has experience in corporate financial management, currently operates an online supervision service store. The name of her store literally translates as “Class 8 of Year 3 Self-Study Supervision.” As the name indicates, most of the store’s supervisory content is the study-related, with customers tending to opt for long-term products and durations exceeding a month.
“Purchasing artificial supervision products reflects the efforts of young people striving to become better versions of themselves,” she said. “The strong determination and expectations underlying this behavior are incredibly moving.”
Lisa places utmost importance on personal integrity when selecting employees. “Supervision is about human communication, and we can’t afford to let our clients down.”
She also strictly prohibits discussing the private matters of any customer, and employees will promptly remind customers if there is a tendency to disclose private information. However, employees frequently report feelings of achievement and warmth from their supervisory experiences, and they offer comfort during moments of disappointment.
“I think this is the essence of the internet — finding warmth and companionship in small things,” Lisa said.
Lisa takes great pride in what she has done. “Artificial supervision is a service filled with positive and empowering energy,” she said. “External discipline and companionship can alleviate the anxiety caused by fast-paced lives and overwhelming information. They can also bring motivation and drive to action.”
In the future, she hopes to continue her dedication to this industry, developing more artificial supervision modes to assist more people in finding personalized ways to achieve self-discipline and accomplish self-development.
A need for standards
The phenomenon of online emotional support products is still relatively new, posing risks for both consumers and practitioners. The market urgently needs standardization. Zhou Wenyan, a 25-year-old lawyer, is also a user of online emotional support products. In her opinion, these products offer quick responses and strong privacy, aligning with the fast-paced lifestyle and on-the-go consumption habits of young people. However, with the popularity of such products, questions have arisen about potential fraud or false advertising.
Zhou said that in the typical contract for the online purchase of goods, assessment of the content or delivery schedule of the goods is straightforward. However, this is not the case with online emotional support services.
“Determining the actual performance of such online services is limited to literal interpretation and cannot solely rely on a consumer’s unilateral assessment that the service failed to yield the expected results,” she said.
In addition, the leakage of data and privacy, as well as the inconsistent quality of service products, are two major risks consumers may encounter when purchasing and using online emotional support products, according to Zhou.
“Consumers should opt for reputable platforms,” Zhou advised. “Make sure the product pages include relevant confidentiality clauses or establish oral agreements with service providers concerning data and privacy protection.”