It’s an hour past midnight on Saturday. In a seedy looking hotel room somewhere in Uttar Pradesh, a woman in her mid-twenties, draped in a red gown is applying the final touches to her makeup, when there is a knock on the door.
A waiter comes in with food and looks at the camera. “Shooting chal raha hai kya? (Is shooting going on?),” he asks.
She gets miffed and slams the door shut on his face.
She turns her attention back to the camera, smiles and starts humming hindi songs from the eighties. Occasionally, she bursts into a dance — part giggly girl, part coquette.
A few hundred viewers are watching her live on an app. As she begins swaying to the songs,the viewers go mad.
Comments flow in.
“Open your blouse”
“Please turn around”
“What nice breasts”
“Will you be my friend?”
“Call me, baby”
A moderator tries to mute sleazy comments but with millions of viewers streaming in, it’s not easy.
The performance goes on till 5 am when she decides to crash on the bed next to her.
She sleeps. The camera continues to roll and the comments flow on.
I jump to another window in the live app. A lady in Mumbai is swearing freely. But you don’t see her — just a ceiling fan that turns slowly like a scene from a European art movie from the 70s.
For a week, I watched women and men across India sing, dance, sleep, laugh, play quizmaster, give sermons on everything from god to sex.
It was fascinating, funny, disturbing and sometimes, outright disgusting. And it was addictive. I got sucked into the life of others. I was hooked into their make-believe world of lust, faux love and animated performances.
I am not alone.
Call it the Jio Bump if you want, but thousands — if not lakhs — of Indians are now hooked to live streaming apps like Bigo Live and Live.me which let ordinary Indians broadcast their lives.
After all, all you need is a smartphone and an internet connection.
According to a ANI report, in December 2017, BIGO LIVE was second only to Youtube with more than 40 million downloads in India. Bigo Live says it has than 50 million registered users in India so far. A spokesperson for Bigo Live also claimed that it was “India’s top grossing social” app on Google Play Store. While Bigo Live was developed by Singapore based Bigo Technology, Live.me is developed by Hong Kong Live.me Corporation.
But why would someone want to broadcast their lives?
For some, it’s a chance to showcase their talent. “We do hold various contest based on genre like singing, dancing, comedy etc where these talent come perform and get support and followers from across the globe and official channels like “India Live House” and “New star live house” to promote these upcoming talents,” says Nagesh Banga, Senior Marketing Manager, Bigo Live.
For others, it’s a chance to make easy money. Users constantly can go live for 5 to 6 hours at a stretch and get virtual gifts like “beans” and “diamonds” from viewers which which they can encash for real money.
But, not everybody who goes live gets love and cash.
Take the case of this shopkeeper who streams all day long as he sells sarees to customers. He doesn’t interact with viewers. The stream is boring yet viewers jump in with comments. Random “Hi”s, a few leery comments about the women customers who come to his shop and some abuse like: “If you are not doing something on live, please go offline”
“This is the peak of digital voyeurism,” says Debarati Halder, MD,Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling to TheBigScope. “People also have an inherent desire to talk about themselves which is why social media exists,” says Halder.
She further states that there are no proper laws for live streaming in India. “In many cases, the girl or the man, often skimpily dressed, will just dance around live on these platforms while random people get to see them and comment. Sometimes, even sexually abusive comments, at the start of such live streams, help draw more audiences even though they are removed by moderators soon after.”
Bigo Live says that it strictly disallows explicit content.They company says it has developed an Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform called Haidu Recognition System to remove pictures that violate its policies. “This artificial intelligence system has been also recognized by government of Thailand and Vietnam.”
Sanchit Vir Gogia, Founder & CEO of Greyhound Research believes that live streaming is a profitable business and more startups will come to the fore in the future. But he also warns that individual users should be more careful about how much they are exposing themselves to the world. “Platforms should cater to have more community guidelines to safeguard any violent or sexual content,” he adds.
When I asked a person who often goes live on this app if he was worried about his privacy, the person was dismissive. “I just want people to know me, love me.”
It’s a constant refrain across most lives. A “happily married lady” who lives in Kolkata comes online around 9 pm everyday and begins her live stream with the same line, everyday: “I have just finished cooking and I am free now, world. Please send me gifts.”
This morning, I uninstalled these live apps. I was tired and sick of peeping into the lives of others.
As I punched the uninstall button, a line from my favorite TV series Mr Robot crossed my mind: “We live in a kingdom of bullshit.”