Aadee Zaman Khan is a doctor by profession but a celebrity at heart. Dr. Zee, as he’s known to his fans online, goes live regularly on Bigo, a Chinese livestreaming app with a cult following in Pakistan. In his livestreams, he’s often speeding down Peshawar’s main road, flirting with handsome servicemen at roadside gas stations, sometimes pretending to be tailed by imaginary paparazzi. His soft, boyish looks belie his online personality; he’s known for verbally dominating his mostly male viewers. They love it.
That was, until July, when Pakistani authorities abruptly banned Bigo. The country’s telecoms authority announced the ban less than a month after neighboring India removed dozens of Chinese mobile apps from online stores following skirmishes with Chinese troops on its northern border. Bigo was the first of many apps to be banned by Pakistan this year, including, briefly, TikTok. While the TikTok ban was covered widely, what happened to Bigo barely registered outside of the country.
A subsidiary of Chinese tech giant JOYY Inc., Bigo has been operating in South and Southeast Asia since 2016. The app allows customers to tap into any livestream on its platform by geography: Its interface shows livestreams by country and city, so a user in Pakistan could find and watch a livestream in Kabul just as easily as they could one in Vietnam. Its 400 million users are mostly concentrated in the global south, in countries such as India, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In Asia, Bigo often comes pre-installed on the relatively cheap Chinese smartphones now ubiquitous in most markets.
Before it was officially removed from Pakistan’s app stores, Bigo had been a runaway hit with the country’s working class. The company’s focus on a marginal, underrepresented, and newly online community has been lucrative — at times, even financially predatory. And while Bigo still functions in a limited capacity in spite of the ban, the app has brought a new class of consumers online, one primed for the future social media platforms that will take its place.
Bigo’s algorithm encourages video interactions between complete strangers by geography. But it’s more than just a simple livestreaming app: It’s a social game, a universe with its own currency and rules. Users can play games, rise through social ranks, add strangers to live video calls, read messages in real time, sing, make short videos, and, through these interactions, defy the divisions of their physical world.
For users like Dr. Zee, when the app started gaining traction in Pakistan, the experience was liberating. On a Bigo call, Dr. Zee tells me he stumbled onto Bigo after some “drastic personality changes.” “I joined for two weeks just as a caller, the way you’re calling me,” he told me. “A little bit later, I went live, and within two days, I had hundreds of viewers. Within three days, I went viral.”
He said he doesn’t depend on Bigo for an income, as many others on the app with large followings do, although the company does pay him whenever he meets its quota of 40 or more hours of livestreaming per 15 days, a typical setup for popular streamers. For Dr. Zee, it’s not about the money: It’s about cultivating a fan base. “I’m not even that famous, but when I go out on the street, people recognize me!” he told me. “People want to see new faces. They don’t want to see the same old stars. They want to see someone real.”
And the early Bigo livestreams were very real; they included Baloch and Pashtun asylees on stopovers along the arduous and often deadly human-trafficking route that brings Pakistanis through Iran and Turkey to Europe. Users flicked among regions. In the Gulf, you could join Pashtun laborers in Saudi Arabia broadcasting their meal preparations after jummah prayers; in Spain, a Saraiki shopkeeper giving visa and asylum tips to viewers in Pakistan seeking a way out of the country; in New York City, a Kashmiri cabdriver flirting with women in their home villages, showing them the dollars he had earned that day.
Opening the app when it first came to Pakistan and witnessing these scenes was thrilling for me. Suddenly, I could interact with people all over the country — people I couldn’t see in my physical world. Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, is spoken natively by only 7% of the country’s population, but local dialects rarely appear in mainstream media. On Bigo, I could speak Pashto and Punjabi with livestreamers and watch others switch seamlessly among dialects.
I watched the kind of people I grew up around as a child in Lahore, only they were expressing themselves publicly. I saw myself in them, from their jokes to their appearances; it was validating. But I also felt protective of the space. Even though the app was overwhelmingly popular with working-class Pakistanis, I knew that its inevitable gentrification by the upper classes would attract state censorship. From the app’s arrival in the country until about 2018, a narrow window of online expression was untouched by the scrutiny of the Pakistani state. I began archiving these online interactions, recording and taking screenshots to preserve the ephemeral moments I saw on Bigo.
In the first months after its launch, in March 2016, the app’s most popular Pakistani broadcasters were khwaja sira and working-class queer people living outside of major cities. The streams would often be from their bedrooms, discreet dance parties virtually attended by thousands, depending on the account’s popularity. Bigo wasn’t just safer for the streamers than the often violent situations they faced in the real world — it connected them with patrons living abroad. Lucky patrons could even arrange a private call.
The in-app currency, which may be cashed out in most local currencies, presents an alluring opportunity for users to perform for one another on Bigo. It’s part of the reason the app is so addictive: Watching a livestream, you’re encouraged to participate by buying gifts for streamers, who might reward you with a song, a dance, or even an opportunity to speak with them directly on a livestream.
But the exchange isn’t straightforward, and Bigo pockets a lot more than just the processing fee. In some of the khwaja sira circles on Bigo, the story is told of Meena, a khwaja sira girl from Multan in her late teens who received more than $5,000 worth of e-gifts from a Pakistani labor contractor in Dubai. They say this man told Meena he had sold his family’s agricultural land back in Punjab to get her attention during her livestreams. After Bigo shaved 73% off this transaction — including a 30% Android/iOS platform fee — Meena was left with $1,000 to cash out.
Meena’s e-gifts might be on the higher end of the spectrum, but interactions like hers occur daily. When I would log on to Bigo, I frequently saw Zahid, a cabdriver in New York City, sending electronic gifts to a young singer in Peshawar with requests that she sing his favorite Pashto songs, as he aimlessly drove around between customers. The e-gifts and in-app exchanges appear cartoonish — the currencies are called “beans” and “diamonds,” and gifts can include kiss emojis, magic eggs, snowflakes, and digital flowers — but the purchases add up. JOYY Inc. raked in $1 billion in profits in 2019 alone. Many of its users earn less than $1 a day, if at all.
The app uses localized English to access a wide variety of South Asian consumers. As soon as a new streamer signs up, notifications like “Hi dear, come visit my broadcast” and “Why are you late?” start popping up on your screen. Bots appear as ghost users for new livestreamers to give a taste of a real audience. The app’s hypnotic appeal is tough to resist: For users limited to often rural and remote surroundings, the lure of endless interactions with strangers abroad is strong.
The same bots patrol livestreams to enforce Bigo’s shifting censorship rules. While broadly the same everywhere — smoking a cigarette on a livestream is forbidden, as is revealing too much cleavage — the severity with which they are interpreted varies, depending on local government regulations. If the rules are deemed to have been broken, the punishment from Bigo is swift: a permanent account freeze, including all e-currency.
Kaki Pataki, or Baby Dynamite, is an explosive, foulmouthed khwaja sira girl who used to stream from an undisclosed location in Pakistan. She only streamed her hands and feet, and she regularly attracted thousands of viewers by discussing taboo subjects like male impotence and sexual fantasies, with everyone from teenage boys to old housewives. Kaki’s name became synonymous with a rebellious “sexy girl” persona. Her real account was banned in 2019, and according to streamers I spoke with who know her, her sizable e-currency holdings were frozen with it. Kaki’s account was so popular that several copycat accounts called Kaki Pataki have since popped up; it’s become a brand name on Bigo.
Bigo’s financial traps didn’t deter its meteoric rise in Pakistan. B-list celebrities and former cricket stars began appearing on Bigo as official hosts within three years of its launch. The gentrification of the app had begun in earnest. And in Pakistan, with mainstream users comes government scrutiny. The country has a history of bans, but its frequent censorship of social media platforms, films, and TV shows has trained the public to be resourceful in finding alternative ways to chase their desires online.
“Bans don’t matter here,” an unphased Dr. Zee told me. He said Bigo still works on one of Pakistan’s biggest 4G networks, Zong, likely because it’s owned by the Chinese telecoms giant China Mobile. VPNs have also made it easy to access the app; one report claims members of the Pakistani cricket team continued to amass profits from livestreams even after the ban on Bigo went into effect. “The [censorship] is happening as a result of the app getting famous,” said Dr. Zee. “Now everyone knows what Bigo is.”
In the months following the ban on Bigo, censorship authorities have also banned dating apps like Tinder and Grindr and, briefly, TikTok. The ban on the latter was lifted only after TikTok said it would censor accounts involved in spreading “obscenity and immorality on its own. Collectively, the bans indicate a new focus for Pakistan’s censorship authorities. The brief windows of free expression these apps represent are now to be patrolled just like all other media in the country.
With its absence, Bigo’s most popular account holders are taking their newfound social media skills to mainstream platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. Dr. Zee has more than half a million followers on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram combined. Many big streamers, including Dr. Zee, offer their viewers lucky-draw gifts, like free iPhones or even tickets to visit Mecca. “Bigo is a place for me to maintain my stardom,” Dr. Zee told me. “But at the same time, Bigo has become my family.”
Apps like Bigo and TikTok have given the neglected underclass the ability to archive their own histories, cultures, and subcultures through oral tradition, performance, and short videos. They feel the confidence that comes with being seen and heard by others just like them. In Pakistan, Bigo enabled marginalized groups to speak freely like never before. The app gave them a form of online social capital that translates to the offline world too.
Dr. Zee, who rose through the ranks on Bigo — so much so that he was honored at the app’s first award show in the country last year — said Bigo has given him an alternative path to fame. “We don’t let people become stars in this country,” he told me. “We stop stars from budding.” He said his fandom gives him a sense of responsibility.
Toward the end of our conversation — one a few hundred were watching on his livestream — he said, “The best thing about Bigo is that two intelligent people, even across continents, can talk to each other.” Soon after, he took another livestreamer’s call.