Rehan Ahmed
Rehan Ahmed

It’s extremely hard to scale a business by selling anything online in Pakistan, something that tech startups grapple with every single day. Even more so for digital products through mobile apps where, despite the hundreds of millions of smartphone users, the number of users for platforms is usually scant. But there are two categories that defy this trend.

First, you have these financial apps that either instantly lend to people or offer them ponzi-like returns. Think of the digital loan sharks and the various crypto and options trading platforms. But at least that’s understandable: in a country where everyone is short on budget, anything that has the promise of generating income is inevitably poised to do well.

But the second category — video chat apps — gives no hope for such monetary returns and instead plays on a different theme. Instead, it primarily plays off of an entirely different, though no less successful, theme: giving men the chance to talk to women online. And to female content creators the ability to monetise that attention. Of course, this is a generalisation, and there’d be other types of users, too.

You may even come across quite a few male streamers playing games or just talking to other people. But it’s generally the female content creators whose streams are raking in the most eyeballs. It doesn’t really seem to matter if a woman is talking about the rising cost of groceries or singing along to a Bollywood song with a filter on her face; men are there in the comment section.

Earlier in March, the State Bank reported that over $8.93m was remitted out of Pakistan in the last two years through video chat apps

In a recent report for Data Darbar, we found that the top eight chat room apps were downloaded about 157 million times in Pakistan between Jan 2018 and June 2023, as estimated by Appfigures. That’s a substantial number, at least by local standards, in case it wasn’t clear.

While these platforms were always popular at some level, the growth hit the accelerator right after Covid-19 when installs hit an all-time high in Q3-2020 to 12.1m and stayed above the eight digits until the third quarter of 2022.

Leading the charts was Likee, a Singaporean app with approximately 819m downloads, out of which 52.7m stemmed from Pakistan. Following close behind was Bigo Live, owned by the same company: JOYY Ltd. Though these two dominate with aggregate numbers, the last two and a half years have all been about China’s Snack Video. Since Jan 2021, it has been raking in more installs than the other two.

Given the scale, one might expect the content to be lewd, but at its best, it borders on suggestive. But that seems to be enough for men because they have been showing their appreciation through not just attention but by spending money on virtual gifts. Earlier in March, the State Bank reported that over $8.93m was remitted out of Pakistan in the last two years through these apps. Understandably, it asked the Pakistan Telecom Authority to ban such platforms, though no action has yet been taken.

A report by Data.ai found that consumers spent over 548 billion hours on live-streaming apps in 2021, and the overall live-streaming market is projected to reach $4.26bn by 2028. So what makes them so popular and addictive even? Leaving the morality out, the success of these apps can be partly attributed to gamification, which helps increase user engagement, happiness and loyalty.

For as low as Rs300, people could buy 55 “beans” [virtual currency] on Snack Video, use them to buy gifts to send to the hosts of these live streams and get them to answer questions or do stuff (even mundane). Once the hosts have a certain number of “beans”, they can cash them out.

This enables (usually female) content creators to make good money while even giving them the option to maintain anonymity through face-morphing features. Considering that many of the streamers seem to be based out of smaller towns, they probably earn more than any other job suited to their academic qualifications or the local labour market would allow.

To be clear, the popularity of such is not exclusive to Pakistan but is rather a pretty global phenomenon, especially in developing countries. In fact, the eight apps part of the report have amassed over 1.7bn downloads worldwide during the period under review. Behind the big money and occasional obscenity, maybe the success of chat room apps points to something else: the breakdown of real-life social connection in the digital age and the internet becoming a substitute for community spaces.

The writers are co-founders of Data Darbar

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 28th, 2023

Opinion

Budgeting without people

Budgeting without people

Even though the economy is a critical issue, discussions about it involve a select few who are not really interested in communicating with the people.

Editorial

Iranian tragedy
Updated 21 May, 2024

Iranian tragedy

Due to Iran’s regional and geopolitical influence, the world will be watching the power transition carefully.
Circular debt woes
21 May, 2024

Circular debt woes

THE alleged corruption and ineptitude of the country’s power bureaucracy is proving very costly. New official data...
Reproductive health
21 May, 2024

Reproductive health

IT is naïve to imagine that reproductive healthcare counts in Pakistan, where women from low-income groups and ...
Wheat price crash
Updated 20 May, 2024

Wheat price crash

What the government has done to Punjab’s smallholder wheat growers by staying out of the market amid crashing prices is deplorable.
Afghan corruption
20 May, 2024

Afghan corruption

AMONGST the reasons that the Afghan Taliban marched into Kabul in August 2021 without any resistance to speak of ...
Volleyball triumph
20 May, 2024

Volleyball triumph

IN the last week, while Pakistan’s cricket team savoured a come-from-behind T20 series victory against Ireland,...