Illustration by Aniqa Haider
A regular Facebook, Twitter or Instagram user is unlikely to have a clue about the existence of the Bigo Live application. Usually when people think of broadcasting apps, they think of gaming or web news portals. Bigo however is very different from typical broadcasting apps.
Hundreds of people tune in every day to watch Kitty Eyes, one of the most popular Pakistani broadcasters on Bigo. She is a young woman in her 20s, exuding confidence and switching between Punjabi and Urdu, always trending on the Pakistan Bigo homepage along with the broadcasts of Sabziwalay and Mehar Shami.
Kitty Cheeks joined Bigo after a friend asked her to join it for fun. The friend stopped using Bigo but she continued, and has become one of the top broadcasters on the app. In her broadcasts, you see her hair, with blonde highlights, her lips and her neck, never her full face.
In an interview she said that initially it was to conceal her identity but now viewers prefer the mystery. She completes a target of 1,000,000 diamonds every month and is known to be the third highest earning host after Sabzi Walay and Mehar Shami.
Kitty does not perform, sing or dance, she just sits there and talks to you while playing punjabi bhangra or 90s romantic Bollywood songs, the music she likes. When she is sad you will know because she plays songs that match her mood. Mostly, she doesn’t even look at the screen to see messages, she uses another phone to respond. She is known as the queen of Bigo among her fans, and a role model for most aspiring Bigo hosts.
Bigo Live is a real time social media app, it is the unaltered and unfiltered truth of people’s lives. Unlike TikTok and YouTube which allow its users to curate short videos with hundreds of ways to edit, Bigo Live users put their reality on social media without the layered content which is found on other sites used for v-logging and video sharing. It lies at the intersection of the curated world of internet videos and the real world with a chance to make a living out of your own reality.
Bigo is primarily a live video chatting app which means that people video chat with each other with an audience. Using the app is an immersive experience, people often forget or become unconscious of the presence of the audience. The app is less performative as compared to TikTok and Instagram.
What is Bigo Live?
It is a Singapore based live streaming app, a product of Bigo Technology, founded in 2014. BIGO group includes Bigo Live (live streaming app), Likee (short-form video app) and IMO (instant communication app). It gained instant popularity and claims that it has reached 400 million monthly active users in over 150 countries.
When you open the Bigo live app, you come across people sitting in front of their phone screens, lip-syncing to Punjabi rap music playing in the background and casually using their second mobile phone. One of the reasons for the success of Bigo live is its rawness and authenticity. Ahmed, a popular sender on Bigo live says, “The content on Bigo is relatable unlike the videos on other platforms, Bigo hosts are not popular because of their aesthetic homes or Insta-worthy lifestyle, they are popular because they are relatable”
Bigo users can be broadly categorised into two categories, viewers and hosts; the hosts are employed by Bigo through recruiters. The viewers buy diamonds, Bigo currency, via their credit cards to send gifts to the hosts. The hosts are connected to Bigo live management via a recruiter, who is responsible for their salary payment as well as informing them of rules and regulations of the app. Bigo live hosts have to meet certain targets by the end of each month, for example a host has to receive x number of diamonds within a month, to receive their salary.
The app makers also put a lot of effort in localising content, for example during Eid-ul-Azha, viewers could send animated goats as well as other Eid gifts.
Throughout the month the recruiters organise official PK’s, battles in which two hosts compete for diamonds with each other. A host competes in multiple battles in a month which are organised either by their recruiters or the hosts themselves. The regular senders are more motivated to spend money and send gifts during an official PK, hence this is a great opportunity for the hosts to reach their set target. The targets are the number of beans (gifts are converted to beans) which hosts have to earn, these are set targets and range from 30,000 to 100,000 beans a month. Hosts can choose which target they will achieve each month.
PK’s are also a great way to reach a bigger audience, the newer hosts are made to compete against more popular hosts so they can be introduced to their audience. The hosts prepare weeks in advance for their official PK’s, the playlist for the day is prepared well in advance, and the clothes are decided as well as a poster campaign by the host. The PK posters are then used as display photos by fans. At the end of the battle the winner decides a punishment for the losing host.
While most punishments are harmless like pouring water on one’s head but many women are put in uncomfortable positions and inappropriate things are demanded of them. They are asked to dance on an item number, write the name of the winning host’s sender on their face and sometimes make sexual gestures.
For hosts like Kitty Cheeks, the diamonds and gifts sent by viewers can go up to one million in a day. The Pakistani hosts use Payoneer, an online service to receive their salary, Saad Khan, another Bigo host says adding that it can take several days for the process to complete.
It has become a way for many to whom more traditional means of employment are not accessible to make money. Saad has achondroplasia which means that he has a shorter stature than most people his age.
He says, “I work on Bigo live because as a person with disability there are not many options for me out there. I make 30,000 PKR a month from my hosting on Bigo live app.”
User base in Pakistan
Bigo Live app has almost the same demographics as PUBG and TikTok but varies greatly compared to the Facebook-Twitter-Instagram user base. The reason being that these platforms do not require users to express themselves in the written word, instead rely more on audio and visual media. This contributes majorly along with the opportunity to earn through the app that it’s popular within people of similar class and educational backgrounds.
Sidra*, another broadcaster on the app, has not attended college and is able to make PKR 40,000 a month through the app, an opportunity she did not have elsewhere due to her limited education. She broadcasts for at least six hours every day and talks about life, love and relationships online. Her conversations with her audience revolve around everyday events, but she does not reveal personal details about herself online. The app is also opening up more ways for her to earn by offering her a promotion of sorts. “I am also becoming a recruiter which means if I can recruit good hosts, I will be making a lot more,” she says.
Other apps like Facebook do not offer the same ease of conversation that Bigo does for her. She quit using them three years ago, “It actually felt like a book, too many words”, she laughs adding, “The insistent need to be typing is laborious for me. After using Bigo live, I feel social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are not engaging enough”
Bigo does not demand too much from its content makers. You could be a singer, an average person with a good sense of humour, a pretty face or none of these and still have an audience on Bigo Live. There is an audience for your loneliness too, many of the Bigo live users sleep on their live broadcasts while their friends are sleeping on calls with them.
In my observation, a major section of people using Bigo live app are migrant workers, who work and live miles away from their families, friends and communities and the hosts on this app are their only company. The community one builds over time becomes one of the biggest reasons for people to stick around. Imagine a group of people otherwise known to be failures, they failed at school or dropped out, struggling actors and models, never got a good job or migrated to another country in search of livelihood, these are the people on Bigo live.
Bigo host Chaye is in her 20s and one of those people who joined the app as an antidote to late night loneliness. She got married at a young age and was then separated from her partner. She was struggling with depression and the app helped her find a community who have been with her through this struggle.
She broadcasts for seven to eight hours every day and sometimes for 12 hours in one go. She wakes up every day at five in the evening because the peak broadcasting hours are 7 PM till sunrise. “These are the lonely hours of the night and most people find it difficult to deal with them,” she says talking about these late night musings. In her opinion Bigo for many is an escape from the loneliness of their own life and a window into the life of other people. It is more than just a means to earn for most users.
Opportunities for economic independence
Bigo has multiple options for live streaming and allows over 6 people to join a call, people can choose to keep their cameras off. The multiple participants’ broadcasts are where the sharing happens, women can be heard sharing intimate details of their difficult pasts, nostalgic overseas Pakistanis talking about home, and young people can be heard talking about struggling with relationships, drugs and money.
Recently Chaye has been able to earn enough to sustain herself. Initially she was hosting without her family’s knowledge but with time as she started earning more, her family allowed her to continue and also to reveal her face online with time.
“In the beginning, I used to hide from my family and wait until they’re all asleep to go live but now my family knows. They are happy that I can make some money through the app,” she says adding. “My position in the family has definitely changed after Bigo Live, my brother would lose his temper and routinely beat me and my sisters over trivial issues. It is not happening anymore and I am very happy.”
Economic independence brings autonomy in women’s decision making and allows them to take control of their own lives. The observance of purdah, limiting women to the confines of four walls and the enforcement of gender segregation has a major role to play in limiting women’s social mobility and access to economic opportunities. Apps such as Bigo Live enable women to actively participate in the economy and earn, which in turn gives them control over their lives and decisions.
Many women who use Bigo Live as hosts hide their faces using either a face mask or showing only their faces, from below the nose. Some of these women do it to hide their identities not necessarily from their families but also because they fear being judged by society at large.
In the past some women have had to quit using Bigo Live once their families found out. The app seems to have acquired a reputation and is thought to be morally promiscuous by those familiar with it. An average Pakistani family with middle class moral values would not want their daughters to be broadcasting live so the women prefer to conceal identities from the known and the unknown.
Subeeka*, a 26 year old, uses a mask to hide her face online, and earns 45,000 PKR every month from the app. She says the money usually goes towards bills and house rent, supplementing her husband’s income, who runs a corner shop. Even though her husband knows she is on the app, Sabeeka* does not want her family finding out, “I do not want my parents and siblings to find out that I use this app, I think they will not approve and also think my husband is a weak man. Women in my family do not work.”
The hosts on the app are all eventually there because it offers them a way to make money, however it is interesting at times to see the candidness with which women express themselves and talk about their personal lives, even if it is with half their faces hidden
Maya Ali is amongst these women. She is one of the most glamorous people on Bigo Live and gives the interview while she is broadcasting. “I earn a six figure salary almost every month, and now I also have some savings,” she says. Every day Maya dresses up, carefully adorns her face with makeup and a bold lip colour to come live. She broadcasts for two hours thrice a day and has some regular senders who help her reach her target every month. “I wanted to be a supermodel and I have done many shoots with local brands,” she says candidly, flaunting the rose tattoo on her neck. Bigo is the closest she has come to that dream with a platform of 173,000 fans.
She has never had any formal education. “I would like to learn to speak English though,” she laughs and continues with her broadcast, lip-syncing to the Bigo hit akh laal rehndi aah.
A platform for the marginalised
Bigo Live is also popular in the working class transgender community, and for dancers like Alia Khan, offers a respite from the violence trans people have to endure at physical events. “I have been using this app since last one year, earlier I used to do functions, which tend to get violent often. I would come home with marks and bruises all over my body sometimes. Even if they are not out-rightly violent they still push and pull you around, which results in body aches lasting a few days.”
She challenges the notion that Bigo is an easy way to work. She says, “It’s usually perceived that working on Bigo is easy because all we do is sit in front of our mobile screens. It’s not that easy. Some days we work for over 12-16 hours to meet our targets. When the end of the month is nearing, I get very anxious because senders prefer sending to glamorous women than us.”
Alia is speaking to me during a live broadcast and soon gets tired of the conversation. “I am tired now, why don’t you go on other people’s broadcasts and speak to them,” she suggests.
The reason that Alia has to work more than hosts like Maya is because women tend to have a bigger audience and users are likely to send more expensive gifts to women, showing that some inherent biases that exists towards gender in wider society manifest in online spaces like Bigo too.
Harassment and Privacy on Bigo Live
Apps similar to Bigo Live are facilitating work from home but are largely ignored by the organisations working for digital rights because they have a very different user class base. Women have been blackmailed, harassed, and non-consensual sharing of their personal photos and videos is a regular occurrence on Bigo yet very few users have reached out to FIA or other non-profits and non-governmental organisations for help regarding cyber harassment complaints.
Hosts spend almost 50% of their day on the app and are unable to maintain or grow friendships outside the app, some also get into serious relationships on Bigo Live.
Chaye also met someone through Bigo live who later leaked her photos to the entire Bigo community. She says, “these photos were making rounds for weeks but good thing [is that] these men leak so many women’s photographs that they have probably forgotten about mine. Literally every other female host on Bigo live has had their personal information used without their consent by men on the app especially senders.”
Over the years many women especially popular hosts have had their personal photos leaked, some have been blackmailed and others have been coerced into staying with certain men because of the threat of the leak. Some hosts also say that in order to meet your targets sometimes you have to make “compromises” and interact intimately with the senders on private call rooms hosted within Bigo Live. Upon asking why they did not complain to authorities, one host said “the authorities would just ban the app without understanding the reality of their lives and sometimes our families do not know we are using the app. I do not trust the authorities to respect our privacy and confidentiality”
Once you make an account on Bigo Live, there is no option of deactivating or deleting your account. The only way to deactivate your account is by reaching out to the Bigo live admins and asking them to ban your ID, despite the ban your account will continue to show on the app.
Bigo administration has never taken action against any user or host for harassment, intimidation of women, or blackmailing despite being closely linked to the bigger senders online. Bigo hires admins from every country to monitor content hence they are more accessible for users than apps like Facebook and Twitter, but the admins are considered biased towards the bigger senders who have spent millions on the app. Therefore, they do not even face an ID ban as a repercussion for threatening or harassment.
Bigo live was banned in Pakistan for a week and it affected many people, the sending significantly dropped on Bigo live and many could not meet their targets for that month.
Pandemic and the growth of Bigo live
Considering the restriction during the lockdown, Bigo live users grew in the pandemic. Work from home is one of the preferred working conditions during COVID-19 and perhaps post-COVID as well, yet the government chose to ban the app without prior discussion or interaction with its users
During the lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19, popular celebrities also joined Bigo Live as hosts, including cricketers Kamran Akmal, and Imran Nazir, comedian Shakeel Afridi, actor Afzal Khan aka Jan Rambo, filmstar Moammar Rana, as well as popular TV host Mathira due to people being confined at homes and countries enforcing lockdown. The out-of-work celebrities, be it t cricketers or the TV personalities use the app because they have an audience which they had lost due to lack of work opportunities and social interactions.
Famous Pakistani singer Naseebo Lal also joined the app during the pandemic, she would go live for several hours with her band to perform on-demand. Naseebo is not an exception on Bigo Live. Many working and middle class artists have taken to Bigo live, the home page features dozens of artists doing on-demand shows. Naghmana who is popularly known as Maghroor Laila joined Bigo Live during the pandemic as well. Her hit-song Maghroor Laila became an instant hit, and every girl, whether she liked it or not, could lip sync to it. I spoke to Naghmana to know more about her life on Bigo live. “I joined because my well-wishers and friends in the media told me to join the app during the lockdown.”
She says work was coming through prior to the pandemic, but the situation for artistes in the country is dire, “Artists in this country are on the roads, there is strong lobbying within the showbiz and as a woman it becomes even more difficult. Where does a woman artist like me can go?”
She points to the lack of concerts and says apps like Bigo have given them a way to earn and showcase their talent. There are no concerts or shows happening and there are no opportunities for artists like me. “The banning of apps like Bigo live is an injustice especially to the artists’ community and the women. Don’t those in power know how difficult it is for us already in this country?”
Naghmana plans on staying on the app and continuing her journey, similar to her offline music journey, she is also an instant hit online on Bigo live.
Young people, the primary demographic of the app, use Bigo Live for many reasons, employment being the one which stands out the most. Pakistan currently has the largest population of young people compared to its entire recorded history. Online platforms offer work opportunities especially for young people since they allow monetisation. Bigo is similar to platforms like YouTube or TikTok, however, in some ways a lot more accessible. Bigo Live also stands out because no other app guarantees a steady monthly income like it does.
Apart from this, like recognised artistes on the app, it has also become a place for these young people to showcase their talents, talk about their dreams, express their emotions, and they do just that. The women and men on Bigo do not conform to preconceived ideas of morality and righteousness. They display their vulnerabilities, the precarities of their lives and emptiness of their youth. They sit live everyday broadcasting the mundane, talking about their loneliness, aimlessness and everything else that they are told should not be talked about, which for the women in this country, especially those on Bigo, is a new experience.
Social media apps like TikTok and Bigo have come under scrutiny lately because they do not fit into the model of nation-state and the predefined roles of men and women in it. In any nation-state the ideal woman citizen is a middle class woman whose duty is to produce brave loyal sons and subservient, obedient daughters and her primary place is the private sphere. On apps such as Bigo live and TikTok, people deviate from these norms. The ban on Bigo Live against the “vulgarity” is actually a ban on the showcasing of these vulnerabilities and realities, not desired by any security state. The definition of vulgarity is always abstract. In the case of Bigo Live we don’t know what state deems vulgar and immoral. Is it the presence of women lip-syncing to Bollywood songs or is it the dancing bodies of entertainment workers performing that offends the moral values? Bigo is real-time social media, its authenticity is disturbing to those who would rather hide poverty, vulnerability and intimacy. Bigo is a mirror of the society we live in. Chaye doing sit ups with her back facing the camera as a punishment from the host is a woman navigating a male dominated society and making patriarchal bargains in exchange for some money, in a society which prohibits their mobility, education and employment.
State’s banning of Bigo is akin to it overlooking the deeply patriarchal society we live in, which objectifies and commodifies women’s bodies. Patriarchal bargain was coined by Turkish feminist Denize Kandiyoti to explain women’s role in a classic patriarchal settings such as Pakistan. The women offer what is demanded of them, the objectification of their bodies demanded by hosts and senders is a survival tactic. The process of negotiation involves compromises on women’s part in order for them to receive some power and in case of Bigo live, money.
A ban on the app by the government is not helpful in the absence of state provision of employment, education, and opportunity. People often navigate society and find their own ways to survive. The success of Bigo Live is that survival for the working people of this land and close to 150 other countries. Whether it’s PUBG, TikTok, or Bigo Live, people will always find a way to express their creative potential whether to be artists or to earn a living.
* The name of the individuals has been changed to protect identity.