In her celebrated book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, American journalist and commentator Jia Tolentino writes about the way the internet has enveloped and shaped our lives in the 21st century. “As a medium, the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive,” she writes. “In real life, you can walk around living life and be visible to other people. But you can’t just walk around be and visible on the internet—for anyone to see you, you have to act.”
Nowhere in the world has this desire to be seen—to be actually seen, and not heard, or read, or listened to—had more of an impact than in India. Over the past decade, first with the rise of YouTube and then via the magic leap of TikTok and its clones, Indians discovered what it was like to be seen, to be known, to be acknowledged as being good at something.
During an interview in October 2016, Farid Ahsan, founder of Indian-language content creation and sharing platform ShareChat, which calls itself the "social media for the next billion," said something that resonates even today: “Indians don’t have privacy concerns; they have discovery concerns.” Unlike most urban Indians like us, who have been to school and college and have workplaces and interest groups and networks that flow naturally from these, Indians in tier-3 cities, rural towns and villages don’t have access to inbuilt networks, said Ahsan. They are hungry to be seen, to expand their circles beyond family, neighbourhood, and village, and they don't care how this happens—even if it means their phone number being circulated among hundreds of WhatsApp groups. They want to be discovered.
And what better medium for a literacy-challenged but naturally performative nation than video?
How did we get here? Although the video story accelerated over the past decade with the rise of cheaper smartphones equipped with better cameras, it started in the post-liberalisation 1990s, when cable TV entered our lives. “First MTV and then Channel V changed the media landscape in India. As with most of these things, there was a certain amount of synchronicity to it: the availability of MTV and other music video channels coincided with the growth of colour TV, and they fed on each other so that you can’t imagine one without the other today,” says photographer and brand design consultant Anusha Yadav, who works with companies on their visual identity and curates the Indian Memory Project.
The first decade of the 21st century was all about the growth of YouTube, followed by Facebook videos that would auto-play—that’s when audiences around the world started getting truly hooked to video content, a preference that continued to go up. Between 2017 and 2019, digital video consumption doubled from 11 minutes per day to 24 minutes per day, says a November 2019 report from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) titled "The trillion (and growing) touchpoint story recognising the monetisation conundrum".
Between 2016 and now, something happened that accelerated this visibility even further: the growth of short-format video apps like TikTok, owned by Chinese tech company Bytedance and now permanently banned in India, which boosted content creation by Indians like nothing that had come before. A RedSeer report from December 2020 revealed that short-form content was the fastest growing content category in India: users grew from 20 million in 2016 to 180 million in 2020, with Tier II cities recording a 25% growth.
Short videos achieved another unprecedented feat: they drew this content on to the carefully curated feeds of People Like Us, as friends and media-watchers started scrolling through TikTok and discovering the wealth of talent and ingenuity that blossomed in the short-video format. With TikTok gone, it will take time to recreate those networks on other platforms like Instagram Reels and Indian TikTok clones like Josh, Moj, Roposo, MX Takatak and ShareChat.
While each of these has drawn considerable investments after the ban, they are not even close to achieving the kind of engagement and traction that TikTok videos did. In fact, as Mint reported in December 2020, the ban on TikTok substantially impacted the total number of hours of video consumption in India—Indians who spent 2.75 billion hours on short video apps in June spent less than half as much, or 1.3 billion hours, in October, as data from a report by Redseer Consulting showed.
However, video expression is here to stay and will, in time, prove to be platform-agnostic. In 2020, the trend zoomed even further, thanks to the covid-19 effect, with people spending more time indoors. The 2020 report, "Covid-19: Impact on Video Consumption Trends", by the global media agency Mindshare and Indian video analytics company Vidooly, revealed that YouTube garnered 300 billion views in the first quarter of 2020—a growth of 13% over the previous quarter—while the total number of hours spent by Indians on social media (YouTube, Facebook and Instagram were the platforms for which data was analysed) was, on average, four hours per day.
Interestingly, the analysis of the YouTube data showed that during this period, top videos were found to have an average duration of ~29 mins, while the average duration of videos watched was ~14 mins. “This indicates an interesting evolution—that viewers who were mostly watching short format videos on TikTok and other platforms are graduating to watching longer videos. It’s a natural progression,” says Subrat Kar, co-founder and CEO of Vidooly.
Covid-19 and our relationship with video
“Video is so hedonistic. It’s a high to be able to record every moment of your life, and for people who have always lacked the tools to express themselves, it is a huge, huge thrill. The need for self-expression increases exponentially as you go down the social and economic ladder,” says Kavita Shenoy, co-founder and CEO of digital marketing platform Voiro, and a former senior executive handling advertising placement at YouTube. “And over the past few years, we got great video-making tools right in our phones— something TikTok and others did very well—allowing one to make almost professional quality videos without great technical expertise.”
Shenoy credits YouTube with creating the demand for better quality videos—as the user-generated content boom on YouTube advanced, the grainy, homemade quality of early YouTube videos started giving way to almost pro-quality content. To enable this, Google even created physical studios called YouTube Space in some cities around the world for content creators to shoot. And though the need for these spaces diminished considerably as better video-making tools became available to creators in the palm of their hands, they spurred the evolution of the user-generated video.
In fact, it’s mind-boggling to think of the way video-making has evolved over the past few years, with changes coming so thick and fast that advances equivalent to the ones which took hundreds of years have been telescoped into a few years, or even months.
“Even though it feels like it was ages ago, around 2008 I was still recording my children on a handheld Camcorder. Almost every upper-middle-class urban home had one. Today, we don’t even know where the recorder is, and it’s just been a decade or so,” says Shenoy. The most visible evidence of this telescoping came over the past year—while earlier, we lived in a world where we would take a 4 am flight to meet a client in person or to make a pitch to a new investor, we have spent the whole of last year sitting in front of a screen, getting our work done through Zoom and Skype and Google Meet.
The democratisation of content creation and building trust remotely—these are two big things that video changed for us even in the past couple of years.
Landscape to portrait
At the same time, the onslaught of video has brought more intangible changes to the way we see the world and ourselves. With the camera facing out, we see the world as it appears on the smartphone screen, framed within the boundaries of a screen that acts as a constant mediator and interlocutor. And with the camera facing us, we see our own image on the screen, with the danger of always-on beauty filters making us a bit distorted and unreal even to ourselves— the "black mirror" that Charlie Brooker references in his web series.
One of the biggest changes the proliferation of smartphone-enabled videos has made to the way we see the world is the advent of vertical framing as opposed to horizontal framing, which dominated the world of photography and cinema for well over a century.
Now, pundits write about the rise of the “vertical video”—a video optimised to the default vertical nature of our smartphone screens— which is changing the very nature of video-making, be it an indie music video or a big-budget Hollywood film. The consciousness that a large majority of viewers will consume the end product on their smartphone screens changes the way directors and cinematographers approach shots (more medium-shots than deep, long ones that won’t fit into the smartphone screen).
“No photograph or image or video tells the truth, there’s always an element of falsehood to it,” says Yadav. “The ‘truth’ it reflects often depends on the framing, on what you’re showing and what you’re hiding.”