Why do you put yourself out there to be humiliated, commented upon, and be subject to ridicule and remarks?
This was the question with which moderator George Fulton kick started the session An Evening with Social Media Stars on the second day of the 13th Karachi Literature Festival. The literary fest, which returned in all its glory after the pandemic, was being held at the Beach Luxury Hotel from March 4 to March 6, 2022.
An Evening with Social Media Stars featured the most recognisable faces in Pakistan’s social media landscape – YouTubers Danish Ali, Ali Gul Pir, and Amtul Baweja.
“That’s a question we ask ourselves everyday,” said Amtul Baweja. “Intense, tough question. What do you guys think?”
Ali Gul Pir picked up and shared that he hadn't thought social media could be a career. “I thought being a class clown is just a way to be popular and fit in and be accepted, and then as I grew older I realised it could be a career. And then I said I would try it and it worked out.”
For Amtul, the transition from acting to social media was a gradual journey. “I started out with acting and after acting I thought I wanted to do something more. With acting in Pakistan, the roles are very limited, especially for women. There’s the usual weeping, saas-bahu drama. I wanted to do something different and that’s what I think led towards comedy."
With the freedom on social media Amtul could say things she wanted to say, play her own characters and write roles that weren’t limited to typical offerings for women on television. Amtul could play a mechanic, a milkman, a detective, and even a policeman, she said.
“It’s now a job,” said Danish about social media. “Earlier when I started out it was a niche field with a handful of people. But now I’m sure there must be some TikTokers, influencers, vloggers sitting in the audience here as well. It’s just become another job."
What's the formula?
“No,” said Danish when asked if he knew his video Rishtay ka Soda was going to be a hit. “Because I make a video every week. You never know which one will work. I did have an idea that it would be one of my viral videos, but you never know. In fact, I didn’t realise it would get 150 million views on Facebook. I just uploaded it and went camping. I really saw it two days later and then it kept going.”
For Ali Gul Pir, there's no standard formula. “You do your best, try to be true to yourself and don’t follow a standard formula. Everybody asks which video or song is your favourite and as a content creator you feel they are all your babies. You can’t pick a favourite without offending the other kids.”
"Sometimes with content it so happens that the thing you put less amount of effort into goes viral more," said Amtul. "And that’s what’s happened to me a lot of times. I get an idea, I just think of putting it out there immediately without thinking much, shoot it with the phone and it goes viral. Then you’re like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be working hard.’"
“For any aspiring vlogger or YouTubers out here, I will tell you that 50 percent of it is luck, so fifty percent is your skills, trade and your craft, but there is bigger luck involved," remarked Danish.
“I think for me, it’s me first," said Amtul. "I put myself first and what I would like to watch first. Because if you create to please people you will be lost."
Danish, however, thinks otherwise and sets the views as his main focus.
“There is definitely a filter for me where there are some ideas that I wanted to do but I knew they wouldn’t go viral," he said. "Obviously it works best when both worlds succeed."
“For me, it’s for the people,” said Ali Gul Pir. “I’ll see news about something and it will make me angry and then I will write a song about it. Or if I see something stupid in a drama I will make a funny video about it. If I read some piece of news saying there’s a lot of cousin marriages in Pakistan, I’ll be like, ‘Okay, let’s make a love song for those cousins and call it Cousin Dhazan [his latest release]."
Ali added there has to be a lot of stupidity around him to produce such content.
Content languishing in the drafts
For social media celebrities, trolling, rude remarks and criticism come with the territory as there will always be people upset with one thing or the other.
"If you are going to say something honest and you are going to speak your mind then you will tick off people and that’s part of the job,” said Ali.
"A lot of times you doubt yourself and ask if the video you have made is funny enough or cringey," remarked Amtul. "Sometimes I will look at my own content and say, 'What cringe I am doing? What faces am I making?' So there are a lot of times we doubt ourselves. Even now I have a lot of videos in my drafts.”
Danish went on to recall the production of one his videos for which he had roped in a "famous actor".
In my head, I thought it would be fantastic if I could show the story of an actual fish in Karachi," said Danish. "I went and bought a giant actual fish that I kept in an ice box for three days. I filmed with this actress and I acted as the fish and this fish stank up my whole house. I was convinced it would be great but once I edited it, I realised that it just wasn’t that funny."
Danish joked that the actor still doesn't pick up his call because he made her film with a dead fish for three days. "So it’s just an example of the content that we didn’t release.”
"There are half written songs and I don’t complete something if I don’t think it’s worth completing," said Ali. "If I am halfway through something and I feel that this is not going to work or translate and with humour it’s funny its head, but when it comes down on the paper, you realise that it is not funny. Then you just abandon it."
“Sometimes it’s not relevant anymore,” said Amtul. “You take so long making it and by the time you make it that time is gone. People are over the issue.”
Danish claimed the only push for him in online spaces is positivity and the content that can bring smiles to people's faces.
"As a comedian when you get that message that someone was having a crappy day and they watched your video and it made them happy and smile, that’s my reward," said Ali.
The 13th Karachi Literature festival came to a close on Sunday with a Qawwali performance by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad.