As an entrepreneur, I bust my hump every day to create a lasting business that can add value to people’s lives. Then I discovered that there are people out there who make over a million dollars a year because they turn on their webcam while eating noodles. Not only is it entertaining for people who are into such things (YouTube ‘mukbang’ if you want to go down that rabbit hole), but it’s a pretty sweet deal financially too! I love the internet as much as the next guy, but this really blows my mind.
It’s no secret that I am biased towards content creators. So much so, that my only shot on a TEDx stage was dedicated to explaining to the young people of Pakistan just how liberating this path can be for them. The fact that you can create something from your imagination, publish and use the distribution power of the internet to earn off it just seems unreal. And yet, there are people who manage to make this dream a reality every single day. So when I first heard about the emphasis on digital literacy being high on Pakistan’s official agenda, I was elated. In its current form, the powers that be may only be looking at it as a necessary skill to have for an employable and internationally competitive population. My hypothesis, however, is that perhaps digital literacy can reduce dependency on traditional employment altogether.
Enter the creator economy. Since we have all overused and subsequently discarded the word ‘influencer’ into the trash pile of buzzwords, the ‘creator’ can take centre stage. After all, true influencers don’t like being called so thanks to the rapidly declining acceptability of edited selfies, faux relatability, and questionable tactics. But creators, well, they sound... more wholesome. They create internet content, whether it is for entertainment, education, or utility. Ranking your name on Google is the new CV. Projects/gigs are the new jobs. ‘Content creator’ is the new profession.
Is digital literacy enough? No, but it is a starting point. Implementation of this grand ambition is yet to be seen in its full form, but I am guessing that the programme will give Pakistanis familiarity with basic digital tools, such as office productivity, software, image manipulation, cloud-based apps and content and web content authoring tools. The trick towards enabling these people to control their own economic destiny will be to educate them in creative literacy. This means that we need to add to the curriculum technical skills that are challenging and lead to the production of richer content, including video editing, audio creation and editing, animation, as well as an understanding of computational device hardware and programming – along with digital citizenship and copyright knowledge.
Here are my arguments for mapping digital literacy to the creator economy.
1 Pakistan has a massive audience base. This is why, despite having relatively unfavourable conditions, platforms like Facebook and YouTube are looking to quickly ramp up the Pakistani content ecosystem. If content consumption is moving online to democratised mediums, one has to consider the radical proposition that Pakistan has 216 million potential content creators at the ready.
2 Most established content creators in Pakistan already eclipse their better equipped global counterparts because they can easily build a community of followers from our large population. Danish Ali repeatedly nets millions of views on YouTube and Waqar Zaka is considered one of the most successful public figures on Facebook in terms of monetised subscriptions. These kinds of people have definitely proved that reaching more daring heights is not impossible.
3 Most of these creator success stories are built out of pure serendipity; there is no national level effort to catalyse such potential creators. Junaid Akram (1.3 million followers) stumbled upon making funny videos. PK Weather Updates (259,000 followers) started off as a side-hobby. SWOT Guide (137,000 strong community) was something Nezihe Hussain (the creator of the page) did. Now, all these are massive virtual properties that can generate income. I am hoping (and pitching) that a brand can help create some sort of an accelerator for content creators, giving them the guidance and resources needed, so they do not have to rely on pure luck. If the government does this, that is even better.
4 Pakistan has a true pain point in knowledge dissemination. This, coupled with low labour costs, means our benchmark for many local service providers is super low. We trust the neighbourhood AC wala, mechanic, plumber, carpenter, even if they are not necessarily as technically sound. Digital literacy combined with a creator economy can help open up a learning mechanism for such people so that they can better learn their craft and become experts in their field. They can then use this to train new entrants through online learning. Maybe it will spark a DIY movement in the country as well.
Arguments against mapping digital literacy to creator economy:
1 Content creatorship is often heavily skewed towards entertainment and in the absence of a regulator (as is the case with self-publishing platforms), the stuff that is created by this new breed of creators might turn out to be really, really bad. The knee-jerk example that comes to mind is TikTok, the app that has very quickly enabled Pakistanis to express themselves through ‘meaningless’ videos.
2 There is a massive disparity in creator prosperity globally, and the patterns look similar for Pakistan. The top one or two percent seem to have disproportionate amounts of monetisation options while everyone else in the bell curve is left with scraps of the consumption pie. This can potentially be resolved if we as marketers started treating smaller creators/influencers in specific niches as authorities rather than large generalists. But alas, we all want to make a bigger splash and the numbers for niche-specific outreach simply do not look nice on marketing plans.
3 Greater saturation in creatorship means that existing content creators are not incentivised to grow the ecosystem. Does Faiza Saleem want to compete with 2,000 other female-friendly comedians for the Pakistani audience? Only to an extent, I believe. Therefore, existing players in the creator economy that already have traction may not be too gung-ho about this to work.
4 One could argue that while content creator basics can be taught on a technical level, it is next to impossible to create a step-by-step programme to ensure the success of everyone who goes through the process. The internet is a strange, ever-evolving place and the type of content that is trending now may be ignorable garbage later. In this case, we are only setting these 216 million potential content creators into a world of heartbreak and self-doubt. Regardless of how we balance out the pros and cons, and I might be very naïve about it, there seems to be some merit in tying the creator economy to Pakistan’s digital literacy programme. As a marketer, I am eagerly waiting for a ‘universe’ of an increased number of specialised content creators because that will mean that brands will have a greater choice to pick from; integrations will be a closer match to the creator’s genre and will feel less ‘interruptive’ in the content stream. Win-win! I do not want to continue compromising on my influencer marketing plans with just a handful of top-tier creators and an ocean of undifferentiated ‘lifestyle Instagrammers’ peddling a brand’s messages.
As they say, teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime. Digital literacy might make for a good fishing rod, but the creator economy is a trawler net that will yield a larger haul.
Umair Kazi is Partner, Ishtehari.