EVERYONE is into it. Before leaving, your dadi’s friend grabs you by the arm and whispers “Beta aap bhi meri subscriber banein na” she says as she adjusts her glasses, asking you to subscribe to her channel. Just like nearly everyone with access to Wi-Fi and a phone, ‘Qamar Apa’ (let us call her that) is trying to transform herself into a brand. When you do reluctantly subscribe (she sends your dadi a text and a link to make sure) the next day you see that she already has 4,000 subscribers. These people, whoever they are, appear to tune in regularly to listen to Qamar Apa giving out natural remedies for toothaches and muscle pain from her well-appointed living room. She intersperses her ‘medical’ advice with moralisations on everything — from dances at weddings to the proper manner of greeting elders. It is not a compelling watch, but obviously, 4,000 (and growing) subscribers appear to think differently.
Qamar Apa does not have any training in naturopathic medicine, she has not done even a rudimentary course in natural remedies. Her education at a Catholic school has given her fluency in English, which she likely uses to Google the remedies, adding a bit of lore here and there to make them seem her own. On YouTube, things are quite different. If you read the comments below her videos, her subscribers appear to believe that she is an expert naturopath, her stories delivered in the sort of perfect Urdu you never seem to hear anymore, along with her silver hair lending her gravitas. So everyone, herself included, believes that she is one.
Qamar Apa’s story reveals the trajectory of many social media influencers in Pakistan. Before it can be discussed, however, it is important for everyone to know that YouTube and TikTok pay their content creators. The rates are based on the number of views, the number of ad buys and the number of clicks on the advertisements run during the video. The average YouTuber (according to Intuit) ends up making somewhere around 0.18 cents per view. Anyone with 4,000 public watch hours in a year and over 1,000 subscribers can apply to monetise their YouTube account and start earning. A top influencer can make $5 per 1,000 views so if the video is seen by a million people, the income is $5,000! According to e-marketers, spending on social media advertising is going to increase by nearly 20 per cent by the end of this year. Qamar Apa, now in her early 80s, is going to be a part of this rapidly growing sector.
TikTok also pays but much less. Most payments are along the lines of $40-$50 per million views. Given the nature of the platform however it is far easier to get 1m views for a one-minute clip than it is on YouTube. Content created for YouTube can be sliced into shorter segments for TikTok, making it unnecessary for content creators to create separate material for each platform. Creators know that having a multi-platform presence ensures that if one or another of the platforms blocks them or suspends their account (happens mostly on TikTok) their audience knows where to find them on the other platform. The content they come up with can thus be used to create two lines of revenue.
On YouTube, you are an expert if your subscribers believe that you are one.
Judging from comments on YouTube and TikTok most of the public has no idea that the people who are indulging their voyeurism by bringing viewers into their bedroom and kitchens are getting paid to do so. The transformation of ordinary people who may have begun a channel to have some fun and show off their Eid clothes or their kids’ homework is very visible. After a certain degree of success, there seems to be less or no talk of, for instance, ‘going to work’. If the YouTube channel is run by a couple, one of them or both quit their jobs so that they can create content. When the money comes in, there are wild shopping sprees and fancy vacations, as the creators imagine that they are making money without working.
Most content creators that have commodified their lives for consumption by voyeuristic audiences also reach what I call a ‘threshold moment’. At this point, the ordinariness of their lives, or, more aptly, their ‘authenticity’ starts to level out. Events are done, friends are seen, there have been outings — all for their potential to be transformed into content. The once authentic person becomes the YouTube cash-addicted person, desperate to maintain subscribers, provide viral content, allowing people further and further into their intimate universe. The worst tragedy of it all is that save for some extremely top-of-the-line creators, most YouTubers are expendable. When they get to their threshold point, they start to appear inauthentic and boring, and viewers just take their viewing elsewhere.
These are things potential content creators must consider before they get into the business. There is a tackiness to the sudden largesse of money and fame that can come from online content creation — one that facepalms those working hard in medicine or finance or any other profession as unlucky idiots who are not as talented or interesting or charismatic and hence not financially viable on social media platforms.
There is no doubt that this universe of vlogs and TikToks is only going to expand in the future. One advantage of it is that creators everywhere are paid in dollars, meaning that creators in Pakistan can really see dollars flow in if they have huge followings and can command significant advertising revenue. They don’t need visas, they don’t need to leave their families (although that would make great content); all they need to do is produce content, show off their shopping hauls, their naturopathic remedies. On YouTube, you are an expert if your subscribers believe that you are one. This ease of attaining status is like the golden apple, beckoning everyone into giving themselves up for public consumption.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2022