How a pandemic pushed social media influencers to evolve

(Clockwise from above) Dolly Singh in a sketch video as Guddi Bhabhi, Danish Sait, Aanvi of The Glocal Journal and Anupriya Kapur   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Danish Sait was just another funny guy down South until the lockdown hit. Then his video sketches — a part of his Quarantine series on YouTube (better known as Conversations... on Twitter) — took his following from 4,00,000 to 5,00,000 across social media at the height of the lockdown.

While for Sait the videos were just meant to be fun, they resonated with many who were facing similar problems: running out of alcohol, trying to order provisions from a supermarket, talking to a partner, commenting on the Prime Minister’s speech. Some videos got as many as 8,200 likes on Twitter, a platform not known for its video content, while on YouTube they went up to 1.6 lakh. This, despite the fact that they were referencing Bengaluru zip codes, culture and accents, with many a ‘bro’, ‘boss’, ‘machan’ and ‘da’ thrown in.

“The lockdown gave people time to take notice of those with talent outside of the ones they were already following. They were willing to give everyone a chance,” Sait says of the generosity with which people approached his content. Besides the everyday themes and realism, he says the characters he portrays — such as two partners separated because of the lockdown — are probably what appeal to folks online. “You’re seeing so many different people, from age groups to profiles to walks of life to experiences, all capsuled in one minute. Or it could just be the absurdity of the props.”

As we sat at home, influencers either hit the ground and kept us abreast of news or filmed in their own houses to help us find humour in chores such as doing the dishes.

As we sat at home, influencers either hit the ground and kept us abreast of news or filmed in their own houses to help us find humour in chores such as doing the dishes.   | Photo Credit: Volodymyr Kryshtal

It is perhaps the same formula that also makes influencer Dolly Singh’s videos popular. Even when she is endorsing a product, she’ll throw in irony and a mix of characters, keeping us laughing, while showing us the mirror. During lockdown, Singh, whose followers went up weekly by about 20,000 (where earlier they were half the number), says she made sure to add English subtitles so she would have a wider audience, making videos around humour language agnostic. As for Sait, he says, “I feel like it [lockdown] changed content on the whole. Now, when I look at the other pieces of work I’m doing, I’m [not thinking of state or language] but content that can be told in a compelling manner. The story takes precedence... the characters stay true to where they’re from.”

This is ironic because the ‘successors’ of TikTok are promoting their channels based on regional languages. The shift-over generation is mulling which platform to migrate to, even as Roposo, the Indian video-sharing social media platform, recorded 90 million downloads in 10 languages.

Community, connection, conversation

These were the words that content creators linked during the coronavirus lockdown, bringing us videos that informed, entertained and educated. As we sat at home, they either hit the ground and kept us abreast of news or filmed in their own houses to help us find humour in chores such as doing the dishes.

On YouTube India, the daily views of videos with #withme in the title (cook with me, study with me) increased by 600% from March 15 compared to their average views earlier. Gokulakrishnan Kalaikovan, who is a part of the Google Developers Experts programme, a global network of technology experts and influencers, says the trend went so far that he has observed people discuss ideas for a book they had suddenly got the time to write and then go on to do it live. “People who never did videos before are doing it now,” he says. “Twitch [a live streaming service] was popular for gaming before, but now people are using it for live coding.”

Over on Instagram, initial live videos had the quality of informality — of a host like Kalyan Karmakar (@thefinelychopped) working in the kitchen to turn leftovers into meals. They were also timely, like those of SUSS: Sustainable Style Speak (@aboutsuss) that spoke about what we could do to alleviate the problems of craftspeople, mirroring the #SocialForGood hashtag on the platform. There were lots of ‘Can you hear me?’ moments, as guests got blurred or disconnected due to a poor connection, but viewers were forgiving.

Reaping the benefits
  • Instagram lives became so popular that the social networking service enabled them to be saved as IGTV videos this April.
  • Between March 18 and 24, there was a 60% increase in its live views in India (compared to the previous seven days), says Saket Jha Saurabh, Head, Entertainment Partnerships, Facebook - India, which owns Instagram.
  • Meanwhile, BookMyShow jumped on the opportunity as early as March.
  • While all their shows were free in the first month, today 70% are behind a pay wall.
  • They claim to have had “close to four million people viewing events within the first four weeks”.
  • In June, they launched BookMyShow Online, to bring both at-home and out-of-home entertainment under one umbrella.
  • It also hosted the Sunburn Home Festival — two days of virtual electronic dance music — in July, with 12 hours of music.

They were also willing to go with a cause. On April 30, on the YouTube Presents One Nation live stream to raise money for the PM Cares fund, over 75 artists and creators, including Badshah, Bhuvan Bam and Raftaar participated. The live stream got over 18 million views and the consequent hashtag #OneNationAtHome was populated with videos with links for donation.

Let’s talk tech

Technology has had a big role to play in all this. As television journalist Barkha Dutt — who began operations of Mojo Story last September — stepped out to report, with just a driver, a cameraperson and a producer, she told tiny stories that grabbed more eyeballs than big-ticket stars. A YouTube video titled ‘He stepped out to buy vegetables for his children. He says he was thrashed by police instead’ got 2.5 million views, over one with actor Sonu Sood that got 659k views.

“If I’d wanted to do independent journalism even five years ago, I would have had to access special cameras, a van, and been hooked to satellite dishes. Today, the access barriers have come down; editorially, it sets you free.” she says, adding that earlier many journalists were bound by editorial policies, biases or vested interests of media behemoths. Now they shoot on smartphones and conventional broadcast cameras, and use three internet service providers to upload content.

Dolly Singh

Dolly Singh  

This stripping down of tech is something many content creators talk about. Kalaikovan says most videos are low resolution (480p to 1080p). One reason is because all one needs is a phone camera, a tripod, and a gimbal. This is all Singh has when she posts to her 953k followers on Instagram and 328k subscribers on YouTube. She manages to work as a one-person army even when she plays multiple characters in her videos; she also edits them using InShot software. “For the first time, we’ve felt this kind of responsibility,” says the 27-year-old, adding that while there always was a broad sense of what constituted responsible behaviour, “there have been so many things that have come out during the lockdown [from mental health to domestic abuse]. As influencers, we make sure that our content really inspires or helps others”. She recently put out a video asking people just to be kind: “Talk to people... ask for help, ask for company,” she said, sans make-up, props or even a fancy background.

This return to authenticity is what Anupriya Kapur (@anupriyakapur with 100k followers on Instagram, 26k on Facebook) enjoys the most. “I left all my inhibitions behind,” she says, of her TikTok-inspired short videos, many in a sports bra that she has got used to wearing at home during lockdown. “I’d been doing casual, real-life content all along, but suddenly that became the norm. When you see Katrina Kaif washing dishes and her sink is similar to yours, there’s a connection,” she adds.

An eye on micro

These anytime anyday videos touch something within us that elicits a response. With her team of eight to 10 people, Dutt’s coverage of migrant workers received comments such as, “...this is real journalism,” “You are a rockstar...” and even “Ma’am, more than half the time I do not agree with you but I still respect you...” Where she would just scroll through comments before, because a lot of it was abusive, today she says the quality and quantity of conversations have improved. “I found many people engaging in a real way. It would vary from story ideas to ‘Can we help this person?’”

Danish Sait

Danish Sait  

This is not always the case, of course. For Singh, where she got 10,000 followers earlier, there were 20,000 getting added at the height of lockdown; but the trolls doubled too. All this has meant more work for creators. “You still have to find a compelling story, a compelling character,” says Dutt. In fact, many are experiencing fatigue and are taking a break.

So how will lockdown streaming change how we consume content? Delhi-based digital commentator Shubho Sengupta feels that platforms will no longer be segregated based on short or long format videos, but on subject matter. The focus might also be on Make in India, with the importance of micro verticals taking a step forward. An example is the Digital India AatmaNirbhar Bharat Innovate Challenge (a government initiative to identify and promote made-in-India platforms). It is currently inviting entries for Indian apps across eight categories, including health and wellness, news, e-learning and entertainment, which may evolve into subject-specific verticals with their own video content and opportunities for social media interactions. “The new work-from-home Indian will need new Indian platforms that cater to their new lives,” Sengupta concludes.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 7:34:08 PM |

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