Chinese Apps: Swipe Red

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Chinese apps have become so popular in India that they are strong competitors to Facebook and Instagram

IN THE EARLY HOURS OF December 20th, on a mostly empty street in an eastern suburb of Mumbai, a speeding car spun out of control and hit a lamppost. There was no chance for the driver, a 21-year-old named Danish Mulla. Almost the entire right half of the car had scrunched up like a piece of paper.

Horrific as the accident was, when it came to fatalities on Mumbai’s streets, this case wasn’t extraordinary. More than one person dies on an average in a car crash in the city every day. Last year’s toll in road accidents was 389.

But then something unusual began to happen. For the next few days, young men and women, many of them in their teens, turned up at the desolate stretch with the mangled car and crowded around it. They examined it, took pictures, chatted with one another, and then left. A city tabloid which front-paged an article on this unusual activity a few days later reported that the spot had become nothing less than a shrine. When the body of the driver was taken to a cemetery in Kurla, the locality where he had spent most of his life, locals pressed their backs to their shops, as thousands stormed through narrow streets. The cemetery had barely space for more than 1,000 people. According to reports, over 10,000 showed up.

Who was this 21-year-old driver?

It depends on whom you ask. Very few on the other side of 30 were likely to know Danish Mulla, or as his more famous online nom de guerre went, Danish Zehen. A lean, good-looking youth with dyed blond hair and preternaturally dark eyebrows, Zehen was an internet teen sensation. He created video blogs on fashion, hair styling, fitness and the other everyday things young men like him do. He had featured once on an MTV reality show (Ace of Space). But his fame rested primarily on social media. He had hundreds of thousands of subscribers and followers on YouTube and Instagram, where he endorsed various brands. But he was most famous on a platform that most people above 30 wouldn’t be aware of: TikTok.

TikTok is a new type of social media app for short-form videos. People can create lip-sync videos, dance challenges, and other music-driven memes. It is a bit like Vine (every clip is limited to 15 seconds) but also a bit like Snapchat (with augmented reality filters and visual effects). There are no ads, no news, no spats among users (not so far at least), and perhaps more importantly, there are no older men and women. Its demography consists primarily of teens and even pre-teens. Logging on to these platforms for anybody above 30 is akin to being in a bar where the music is too loud and too young and a gaggle of youths has descended on the dance floor doing moves you can no longer recognise. It is a place that social media was initially meant for—fun.

But TikTok is not an outlier. It is part of a whole bunch of social media apps that have quietly washed up on Indian shores over the last year (some aimed at teens, and almost all at India’s small towns and cities). Besides TikTok, similar entertainment social media platforms include Kwai and Like. There are apps like Bigo Live, Vigo Video and LiveMe, which are centred around video live-streaming. And then there are instant messaging apps like Helo.

They are stickier, more viral, more meme-driven, and incredibly popular. They are also all owned by Chinese companies.

“India is a really big smartphone market… If you want to grow (as an online) company, you have to be here,” says Nagesh Banga, deputy country head of Bigo Live in India, a platform headquartered in Singapore, but owned by YY, a Chinese company.

As it turns out, smartphone sales and internet penetration are slowing down almost everywhere in the world, even in large markets like China and the US. In India however the story is different. A recent report by the tech giant Cisco projects the number of smartphone users in India at 829 million by 2022. This was estimated to be only 404 million in 2017.

It is a market that is a key battleground for a number of handset makers from across the globe. One would imagine the competition would be less severe in the online app space, given how ubiquitous social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are. But there’s an equally intense fight going on here and Chinese companies seem to getting the better of it.

According to a report on the tech website FactorDaily, based on research from the app analytics firm SensorTower, five of the top 10 mobile apps on Google Playstore in December last year were owned by Chinese companies. The most downloaded was TikTok, not Whatsapp, not Facebook Messenger. Almost half (44) of all the top 100 apps were Chinese. In comparison, there were only two Chinese apps on the top 10 list and 18 on the top 100 list in December 2017.

Ajay Wadhwa has created a popular online personality called ‘Lolly Aunty’ on Bigo Live. Dressed as a woman, Wadhwa would until recently broadcast over 10 hours daily from his house

Most of these apps have a presence in metropolitan cities. But their biggest user base is among smaller cities and towns. They come in several local languages and are built to work on cheaper devices. According to Raj Mishra, TikTok India’s business head, India is an important market for the platforms. ‘What makes TikTok popular pan-India is the fact that we recognise that creativity is not just limited to the audience belonging to certain towns or users speaking a particular language,’ he says over email.

‘In fact, we see growth across Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi and Kannada speaking communities, to name a few.’ Banga concedes that most large metros are already well serviced by social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. So the real opportunity lies in smaller cities and towns whose users are coming online through new smartphone devices for the first time.

India is an incredibly challenging and diverse country, Banga points out. ‘After every 20 kilometres they say a dialect or language changes. You can’t just have a team here. You have to embed yourself in its culture, get its every nuance,’ he says. And Chinese-owned companies, like the one he works for, seem to be cracking it.

This understanding of cultural nuance is evident in the popularity of Meitu’s selfie-editing app BeautyPlus. BeautyPlus features among India’s top 100 downloaded apps in December 2018. Even if you haven’t heard of the app, you will probably have seen its digital fingerprints across social media in India. The app allows a user to whiten his or her skin complexion. They can do other things too. Airbrush pores, lines and blemishes, whiten teeth, and for a small in-app fee, even tweak structural features like jaw-lines, eye shapes, hair and chin. The app gives the user a tool as powerful as Photoshop, only much simpler to handle, and far more precise and efficient than the usual social media filter provided by platforms such as Instagram. Of course, users can go overboard, smoothing their selfies to the point of anatomical impossibility.

“It’s (TikTok) a bit silly, I know. But we all need silliness in our lives,” says Vishal Parekh. Parekh, or Vish Dop, is a popular figure on TikTok and Like. An 18-year-old from Ahmedabad, he posts at least five short videos every day. Most of his videos are primarily in Gujarati, either humorous skits based on songs and films, but occasionally he also does videos in Hindi. He has over 700,000 followers on Like and over 450,000 on TikTok.

“It’s fun but quite a bit of work. Usually, I take a couple of days to come up with a good skit. Then it’s like 30 minutes of shooting, some editing,” he says. “I just can’t make anything and send it. Because then it brings down my value.”

Many of these new platforms have contracts with people who they believe are social media influencers and can attract new users to their platform. Parekh claims he had a contract with TikTok, where he would be paid $300 every month for a stipulated number of videos. He has now moved on and negotiated a new contract with Like, where he makes $400 every month. He also gets paid for promoting films and songs on these platforms. Parekh moved on from TikTok because his work was getting less promotion on the platform than before. He says, “TikTok was pushing just lip-syncing by pretty girls. Anybody can do that. You need originality.”

Vishal Parekh is a popular figure on TikTok and Like. An 18-year-old from Ahmedabad, he posts at least five short videos daily

VISITING MANY OF these platforms is often disquieting at first. There is no landing home page. You move from one video to another, from those you follow to those which the platform’s algorithm has calculated you will like most (you can also always slide into a new video). You can move from lip-syncing videos to cat videos to a broadcast from other lonely men and women who do nothing but look forlornly into the screen.

These platforms appear to herald a new moment in our cultural self-expression. If Instagram has Kim Kardashian, Snapchat has Kylie Jenner and Twitter has Donald Trump, on these new platforms, the biggest celebrity is the user. Anyone can broadcast anything. And somewhere out there, somebody will watch.

Dimple D’Souza is a 33-year-old housewife in Chennai who until a few years used her spare time to run a YouTube channel on beauty and fashion tips. During the wedding season, she also doubles up as a bridal designer. She was a talented stage dancer and a fashion designer, but had to put these interests on hold because, she says, life got in her way.

Almost every night now, between 7.30 and 12.30 pm, D’Souza broadcasts a live stream of hers. Anywhere between 500 and 1,500 people log in. Here, she chats with her followers, acknowledges old-timers, and dances to popular Bollywood songs. Occasionally, there is a disturbance. Her three-year-old daughter will distract her sometimes. But she returns unfazed. This is her time.

What is interesting about the platform D’Souza appears on, Bigo Live, is that it is really a game built into a social media platform. Users earn tokens here for spending time on the platform. They can also purchase tokens, which can then be showered upon broadcasters like D’Souza. The app in itself is an interesting and almost self-contained world. There are all sorts of social dynamics at play. There are obsessive fans and stalkers, there are broadcasters who establish a special relationship with some followers, something of an in-app spouse, there are events and competitions among broadcasters and there are people who appear in each other’s live streams in separate windows. Users engage every step of the way, often with their tokens, either encouraged by the platform or because they have built a relationship within the app.

Bigo Live doesn’t feature ads. Its revenue model is dependent on the sale of virtual tokens. The platform takes a cut from all tokens that are encashed by people who have earned it on the platform. Banga doesn’t disclose figures, but he says there are a lot of tokens purchased and gifted on the platform. D’Souza claims she can sometimes make as much as Rs 5 lakh every month.

Banga claims that the top 100 broa casters in India, which D’Souza is a part of, make somewhere between Rs 3.5 lakh and Rs 5 lakh every month.

Ajay Wadhwa, a 27-year-old from Sirsa in Haryana, has created a popular online personality called ‘Lolly Aunty’ on Bigo Live. It’s an incredibly popular character. Dressed as a woman, Wadhwa would until recently broadcast over 10 hours daily from his house. Once he even did 19 hours. He dances and talks, doles out relationship advice, and sometimes even plays pranks.

He gets several lewd messages, he says, for his phone number and requests for hook ups. He is able to ignore them, he says, because he has managed to build strong friendships with many of his followers. A few months ago, when he moved to Mumbai to pursue a career in acting, one of his followers opened up his house for him. “I don’t get so much time now for Lolly Aunty,” Wadhwa says. “Every time I go online, they tell me how much they miss me....”

Why do platforms such as these work? And are people really parting with their money to shower virtual tokens on broadcasters of their choice? “Look,” D’Souza says, “How many young pretty girls on Facebook will respond to random messages? Here, they are acknowledging you, they are talking to you. So they are very happy and want to express their gratitude by gifting.”