A few weeks ago, I was part of a Twitter conversation which was based largely around a single question — where was the Pakistani version of AIB? For those who don’t know, AIB is an Indian comedy group famous for their sketch videos.
For children of the ’90s, AIB represents one of many ways in which Indian culture has seemed to catch up with and overtaken Pakistan’s. Whereas once our cricketers and comedians were both considered far superior, now there seems to be a severe dearth of talent in both this side of the border. In my opinion, however, the lack of a Pakistani AIB isn’t about a lack of talent as much as it is about a lack of conditions needed for such a phenomenon to exist.
Sketch comedy, particularly in the form of viral videos, witnessed an explosion around the world as the costs of production dropped rapidly. With phones as cameras, laptops as editing machines and websites as distribution platforms, the past decade or so saw all kinds of aspiring artists having an avenue to express themselves.
However, groups such as AIB as well as The Viral Fever (another Indian comedy group) were not created by strictly amateurs. Many of them were either stand-up comedians who had spent a long time performing in local pubs and bars, or they were part of India’s various film and media industries. By the time they came around to setting up their eventually successful troupes, they had picked up invaluable experience in related fields or out amongst audiences. In contrast, Pakistan’s electronic media industry developed later and almost immediately after its arrival became preoccupied with the news of covering a near constant state of war and upheaval. Nevertheless, the end of the previous decade had seen several internet stars, with the likes of Naked Tyrant and Lussun TV creating sketch comedy, while eventual TV star Osman Khalid Butt used to make extremely popular vlogs on local pop culture.
But before any of these graduated to the level of their Indian counterparts, the Pakistani state laid down a ban on YouTube, the world’s premier online video platform. By the time the ban was lifted, the likes of AIB and TVF (and similar such ventures across the world) had gone from simply making viral content to turning their skills into lucrative businesses. Brands were either sponsoring their ventures (such as live events and web-series) or getting them to make content for them. A new industry of content-driven digital marketing had emerged, and offered new opportunities to the young and creative.
In contrast, Pakistani content-makers were left with the curse of platform disruption. Was it worth it to stay on YouTube and hope that people continue to use proxies to log on to their channel? Or was it better to go to an alternative option, like Dailymotion? The problem was that YouTube’s distribution, recommendations and existing online community were unparalleled, and the lack of direct access for Pakistani audiences meant any alternative option was going to be sub-optimal.
When, a few years into the ban, Facebook began to aggressively push its video options, there seemed to be a happy solution in place. Facebook was easily the most popular social media platform in Pakistan, and thus the issue of audience migration was resolved. But the platform came with more significant issues — it required creators who made viral content to purchase ‘boosts’ in order to continue the distribution of their content. This both prevented amateurs from breaking out, and allowed inferior content to be able to purchase an unfair advantage.
Moreover, it also left Pakistani content-makers more vulnerable to being ripped off. Given that they were primarily restricted to the more cordoned off world of Facebook, Pakistani content-makers were often unknown to larger audiences both in their country as well as the diaspora unless they spent big. This meant that if someone copy-pasted their work, few would notice. In an eye-opening blog written a few years ago, Noman Ansari detailed a long list of videos originally created by Pakistani content-makers that had been almost completely plagiarised by “Zaid Ali T”, an internationally famous Canadian YouTube star whose videos have gained millions of views. While such plagiarism wasn’t unique to Pakistani online spaces, the restricted access to the pre-eminent video platform curtailed their ability to fight back more than in other places.
This inability to break out also meant that when corporates the world over began to sponsor digital media, those in Pakistan had few options to choose from, and were more hesitant to do so with few local success stories to work with. Unlike most other countries, Pakistan had lacked the online monoculture for videos that YouTube provided, and thus had a relative vacuum where others had developing industries. And all of this discussion is before we consider the fear and paranoia that came with living in a society in constant state of war and extremism.
Of course, with the YouTube ban now over for more than a year, the situation has begun to slowly change, and even before it there had been alternatives. Comedian Danish Ali is the best example amongst several content-creators who have achieved both viral success as well as collaborations with brands to earn from paid content.
But what we need to learn from this is the appreciation that arbitrarily trying to stop progress in today’s world via bans is not just stupid, but it also costs our society in subtle ways that impact both our economy and our culture.
Published in Dawn, ICON, April 16th, 2017