The Memes 2019

Internet Heroes
Stardom by Clicks

“One of the things I love most about the digital space is its ability to create a new path that is unrestrained by systematic power and tradition. Just something to think about as we witness firsthand how rapidly this platform is changing and the direction being taken.”

- Lilly Singh (aka ‘Superwoman’), 14 million YouTube subscribers

We live in the age of live-streaming content – facilitated by high speed internet, HD viewing and the ever handy smartphone. User generated content that is real and relevant with a strong functional and emotional connect is finding huge resonance across India and the world. A slew of self-taught internet stars are making careers on YouTube and elsewhere online, grabbing young India’s attention – a dramatically different world of content and media from the one that attracted eyeballs in the not-so-distant-past.

What started in the early 2000s as a cult phenomenon has now become contemporary pop culture. There’s even a term for it in Mandarin – Wanghong, meaning ‘internet celebrity’. In China wanghong attract the attention of the country’s Internet users, and influence the digital economy by driving profitable sales.

Successful internet personalities today are those who master the art of self-presentation on digital media – for consumption by large audiences on their smartphones and devices. These new stars tend to operate in niche spaces with a razor sharp focus on content delivery. What sets them apart is their ostensible ‘ordinariness’ coupled with a unique and quirky take on life. Candid humor, unfiltered lines, and bare-it-all behavior make them more relateable and ‘real’, compared to their over-scripted, heavily manicured traditional-media counterparts.

YouTube started as a video-sharing platform but has now become one of the largest talent incubators for content in the world. Becoming a YouTuber is today a career aspiration for millions of young people. Popular YouTube personalities like Vidya Iyer (singer) and Shweta Singh (poet) started their careers on the platform and have gathered huge fan followings since.

In fact, YouTube has helped many leapfrog into the mainstream entertainment industry, without having to go through the traditional route of performing in theatre and small budget shows. TVF’s Mallika Dua is one such example – the Delhi based content writer shot to fame overnight for her hilarious portrayal of Sarojini Nagar shoppers back in 2016. Since then she has appeared as a guest judge on The Great Indian Laughter Challenge and is due to star in Midnight Misadventures alongside celebrated actors like Rajkumar Rao.

While YouTube channels like Being Indian and The Viral Fever (TVF), had large following a few years ago, the market has since gone hyperlocal. Today Geeky Ranjit (gadget reviews), Kabita’s Kitchen (cooking) and Funk You (pranks) have huge followings online. While Bhuvan Bam and Nisha Madhulika have found wide appeal among Hindi speaking viewers on YouTube, internet celebrities have emerged across the linguistic spectrum of India. Tamil Selvan (Tamil Tech in Tamil), Jhanavi Dattesy (Mahathalli in Telugu), Kiran Dutta (The Bong Guy in Bengali) are among the many regional internet stars.

And it isn’t just entertainers who are making it big. India’s real motivational speakers are not necessarily the names splashed across our mainstream dailies. Check out the popular leadership coach Dr. Ujjwal Patni on YouTube where he has over 2 million subscribers. Or the motivational speaker Dr. Vivek Bindra who has over 5 million subscribers. Giving them a run for their money is another motivational speaker, Him-eesh Madan (not a typo, he really writes his name like that). Him-eesh has 4.5 million subscribers. But no one can beat, Sandeep Maheshwari and his ten rules for success. He is about to touch 10 million followers. Each of these speakers use Hindi or local languages in their online videos and presentations.

Armed with affordable smartphones and low-cost, high-speed data, India is on its way to becoming a digital-first nation where English is not the first or even second language for a vast majority. Bharatiya Digital Party, a Marathi channel on YouTube has racked up more than 28 million views with Hogwart Yanche Navin Marathi Vidyalay - Harry Potter set in a Marathi context. OTT platforms like Alt Balaji and Voot are already streaming content in major regional languages.

Regional content in a visually rich medium immediately breaks down barriers and is less intimidating for first-time users. They feel more welcome and comfortable in a new medium because of familiar local contexts and recognizable archetypes. It’s worth noting that Chinese video apps with regional content and sharing platforms like TikTok, Vigo and Kwai already have millions of subscribers in India.

Today the longevity of stars and our expectations from them are totally different from the past. Once television and celluloid, created superstars who stood the test of time. Today stardom is being democratized and served in bite-sized portions – as the medium of the Internet allows each new sensation to shine - one day at a time, one click at a time.