Ahead of an exhibition in Stockholm 50 years ago, Andy Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” The American pop art icon’s prescience has surfaced in public consciousness several times in the past few decades: think public television wannabes, financial arbitrageurs, dotcom (dotcon?) scamsters, and social media shooting stars.
In its latest iteration – this time closer home – the Warhol Theorem is playing across millions of phone screens in India. And, to add a twist, the puppet strings in this almost surreal transnational saga are in the hands of a Beijing-headquartered company called Cheetah Mobile.
Meet LiveMe, a China-born live streaming app slowly climbing the Indian social media billboard.
The story of LiveMe is best told through its actors. Meet Diya, 23-and-a-half, single, who likes taking naps and Punjabi film music, and lives in Charkop Naka in the suburb of Malad in Mumbai. This per her profile.
It is late on an August afternoon and I’m logged into Diya’s broadcast on the LiveMe app – one among her 1,650 live viewers. She’s not doing much. Lying on a bed, watching messages that come on her broadcast and responding to some. After about 20 minutes, she announces to her viewers that she is going to take a nap. “If you want to keep viewing you can, if you want to leave you are free,” she says, squinting hard into her phone that I can see the phone screen reflected in her eyes. It takes four more pronouncements of her hit-the-sack intent before she pulls herself away from the stream of messages coming her way. Someone tells her how beautiful she is, another wants to sing her a lullaby. She finally places her phone beside her on the bed to go to sleep. The viewers can’t see her now. But, they can see the ceiling fan whirring. The viewers drop down to 877. Eight hundred and seventy-seven people watching a suburban Mumbai ceiling fan at work or hoping Diya will come back.
If you are imagining this in an Anurag Kashyap flick, Sofiya, broadcasting on LiveMe more recently, is a straight lift from what would be a modern-day version of an Ingmar Bergman classic. Sofiya says she’s broadcasting from Jammu & Kashmir. She holds the phone so close to her veiled face that only a corner of an eye can be seen. She occasionally looks into the camera and hums a tune while responding to messages. Most have the same request: please show your face. There are over 3,200 viewers tuned in to Sofiya’s broadcast — nearly three times the number of people who would fit into India’s largest theatre, the unused Victoria Public Hall in Chennai.
Launched in India in April 2017, LiveMe has over 13 million downloads in India, according to Cheetah Mobile. Three of four of its users in India fire up the app every day and the company wants to increase that to 95%. An average Indian user spends around half an hour a day on the platform. Released already in 70 other countries, LiveMe counts India as its second-biggest market behind only the US. Cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Surat, and Lucknow are among the ones that it receives the most traffic from.
For context, there are other fishes, some bigger, in the pond. Bigo Live, another app with Chinese roots, claims over 40 million downloads in India (200 million worldwide) and five million active users. Then, there’s Facebook Live and Instagram Live, both of which don’t break out numbers for India specifically. Facebook has about 270 million users in India and Instagram some 67 million monthly active users. And, yes, before we forget, Twitter has Periscope.
LiveMe’s rapid scale-up is part of a slew of Chinese app and internet companies doubling down on India using their learnings back in the Middle Kingdom. From UC News to Beauty Plus, from TikTok to NewsDog, from Bigo Live to Mobike… Chinese apps have been consumed by a sizeable Indian audience. In the last few years, a new wave of Chinese entrepreneurs is starting to make their way to India. This includes the likes of Club Factory, SHEIN, ROMWE, Mobike, among others and is different from the entry of large companies such as Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo, Shunwei Capital, Fosun, and others.
Taking a leaf out of the China playbook, LiveMe, like its competitor Bigo Live, is expanding its India footprint rapidly – spending from the $110 million it raised from Chinese tech company Bytedance last year in two rounds. LiveMe positions itself as an app that is focused on providing a platform for young, budding artists to showcase their talent and garner a fan following through the app. The platform organises virtual events, including performances and quizzes to promote talent through the app.
Mimicry artiste Chandini tells FactorDaily that she spends a couple of hours broadcasting on the LiveMe app every day. A law student who also has a YouTube channel with 24,000 subscribers, Chandni says that she has been on different broadcast platforms, but LiveMe makes her the most money. “My broadcast is a mixture of random stuff: comedy, mimicry or sometimes just gyan bhari baatein,” she says over an Instagram chat. Yet, she says she finds immense support in her fans and friends – the community that she has built for herself on the platform. Like on Bigo Live and its main backer social media and live streaming platform YY, LiveMe enables sharing of virtual gifts like stars, flowers, jewellery, cars or even yachts that can be converted to cash. These gifts are redeemable via PayPal.
LiveMe hosts shows of its top-rated broadcasters who find they are paid for their time. Global news reports have identified users who make as much as $2,400 a month. In India, according to the company, top artistes like Noida-based singer Shruti Sharma, 26, and Nalin Swami, 25, a singer and dancer from Mumbai, make Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 a month respectively. In return, LiveMe takes a 10% to 20% share of such income made by broadcasters.
“We are excited about the possibilities that the Indian market holds,” says Johnny Wu, regional director for India and European market of LiveMe. “Primarily we are targeting the demography of active online users between 16-34 years.”
The 15-minute-fame seekers are not only common in India. Nearly a decade-old industry in China, the live streaming industry in that country was worth upwards of $3 billion in 2016, increasing 180% year over year. As of April 2017, China had more than 200 live streaming platforms and 324 million live streaming users. The top nine popular platforms each had over two million daily active users.
The authenticity and transparency of content that these apps offer soared their popularity in an otherwise heavily censored internet in China. Heavy censorship combined with gender imbalance has resulted in the demand for such apps where lonely men login every day for human contact.
Some of that is playing out in India, too, where there are 60 fewer women for every 1,000 men. Take Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh resident Raja, 29, who runs a grocery store, for instance. Raja says that every day he spends between three and four hours on the app watching various live streams. Several women on the app know him by name and sometimes even ask him about his day, he says. “When you send them a gift, they call out your name,” he says, adding he has spent Rs 500 on the app to date to buy coins and send virtual gifts to broadcasters. (Raja is his profile name and he didn’t want to give his full name.)
Some of the needs met by the app are voyeuristic, for sure. Most broadcasters, for instance, reveal various aspects of their personal lives while live streaming. They let viewers watch them as they select clothes to wear, take a bus to work, come back home, and sit down for dinner in front of the camera.
And, does live streaming ever cross over into salacious content territory or lend itself to dangerous situations? Wu says the platform is focusing on making the brand big for young talented India and content creation. The company is focusing on building “good content” – the Chinese are careful to distance themselves from the racy, titillating content that saw some apps get traction in the early days and get banned.
But, the reality is that there is little that platforms can do if someone wants to misuse it. In August, a registered sex offender was arrested after he traveled to Sarasota in Florida to have sex with a 11-year-old girl he met on the Bigo Live app. In July, LiveMe said it deleted over 600,000 accounts of children under 13 after a TV news channel talked of the dangers of pedophiles exploiting children.
Facebook, after it launched its Live video feature in 2015, has seen everything from gang rapes to suicides committed live on its platform. In an interview to Recode, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that a small number of people were using to broadcast self-harm. “With all the millions of videos that are posted, we had to build this combination of an AI system that could flag content that our reviewers should look at, and then hire a specific team trained and dedicated to that, so that way they could review all the things very quickly and have a very low latency,” Zuckerberg told Recode in its podcast Recode Decode.
For sure, Chinese live streaming apps have gamified the nature of the content – tightrope walking between content that is kosher and sleazy – that bubbles up for virality and consumption. But that strategy has a limited runway when it comes to revenue generation, says the top executive of an Indian internet company. “Regulators in China have identified this strategy and have banned some live broadcasting apps. Soon regulators in India will realize it too,” says this executive. “Once the regulators get to them, the raunchy content that brought in all those viewers stop and hence the monetization stops.” He asked his or his employer’s name not be taken in this story.
Without talking about the monetization challenges, LiveMe’s Wu agrees that the content is a concern for live broadcasting platforms. “We are focusing on the sensitive issue of cyber-security and to ensure the safety we use algorithms to screen profile names and photos and manual screening of content posted to the app,” he says. The company has a 100 member team in Beijing and about 10 people in Delhi monitoring the content uploaded to the app. The platform has a list of keywords in English and Hindi that would block and report users posting inappropriate content. Accounts with inappropriate content and receiving money for the same will be banned and reported to the cybercrime police departments, Wu said.
In other words, LiveMe (and other live streaming apps) will have to keep a beady eye on how its platform grows. Which takes us back to the Warhol Theorem. The Smithsonian magazine has questioned whether Warhol indeed made his “…world famous for 15 minutes” statement. The answer is not abundantly clear — just like the future of LiveMe and other Chinese live streaming apps in India.