On February 21, 2019, Sonam Babani posted a picture from the first class suite on board
Emirates airlines. Wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a flat straw hat, she gazed out of the window. It was a study in perfect choreography and Babani, the 27-year-old behind @fashioneiress, shared the post to her 100k followers on Instagram. “22
flights in 30 days,” she captioned it. As a partner with some of the biggest names in the fashion and beauty industry from Dior to Nykaa, Babani lived a jet-set life and had the pictures to prove it.
For the rest of the year, her feed was a series of glossy-looking, carefully staged posts from Jodhpur’s palaces to Mykonos’s azure waters. In one, she emerged from an infinity pool in a blue-and-yellow bikini, in another she revealed an oval 10-carat diamond engagement ring by an infinity pool covered in roses in the Maldives. She often carried the season’s must-have accessory, a Jacquemus micro-bag, a tiny purse with a large message: simplify your life. Yet, in those days of plenty, with hundreds and thousands watching her moves, it seemed like a preposterous command.
Then COVID-19 began to transform lives, including Babani’s. It began with an email from L’Oréal when Babani was in Milan. They would no longer fly her to Paris Fashion Week. Then her trip to Turkey was cut short as she rushed back to Mumbai before all international traffic came to a grinding halt. As Babani followed the quarantine guidelines, she felt a sense of ease, a break from the relentless requirement to post, post, post. “I’ve been on the go so many years,” she said reflecting on her early days as a luxury fashion blogger in 2014, when she decided to make her private life public.
Years of voyeuristic joyrides, from fashion shoots to parties on yachts, have come to an abrupt halt as coronavirus disease has upended the influencer industry. Social distancing and quarantine have shut the doors to highly scripted glimpses into a make-believe world. Instead, influencers and stars alike have opened the doors to their homes and lives. Katrina Kaif got her hands dirty doing dishes, Preity Zinta gave her mother a head massage, Malaika Arora cooked a Malabar Vegetable Stew and Deepika Padukone baked a cake for Ranveer Singh. Babani opened up in ways different from before as lockdowns across the world create new frontiers of engagement. The digital society, birthed with the Internet and fed on sharing of bite-sized morsels of dressed up lives on social media, is now entering a new age: forsaking the picture perfect for a more blemished reality.
This is a life unfiltered.
Years of voyeuristic joyrides, from fashion shoots to parties on yachts, have come to an abrupt halt as coronavirus disease has upended the influencer industry.
In the early months of 2018, two big announcements were made.
The first came from the World Health Organization at a high-level meeting of senior scientists to list diseases that posed a serious risk of sparking a major international public health emergency. Along with the familiar threats of Ebola, Zika, Lassa fever, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the committee added a ninth mystery pathogen that had the potential to spark a pandemic. They labelled it Disease X. Scientists believed that it could be sparked by a zoonotic disease—one that jumps from animals to humans and then spreads to become an epidemic or pandemic. Assisted by modern travel and trade, the virus could span the globe testing preparedness systems. In the face of the unknown, the committee recommended local health infrastructures be better developed. Little was done.
The other came from Instagram when it revealed its new algorithm. As Instagram increased its reliance on machine learning based on past behaviour it created a unique feed for each user even if they followed the same people. Unlike previously, your Instagram feed would no longer be based only on who you followed but also on whom and what you like. Their goal was to increase content from “friends and family” while doing away with the chronological feed. For Instagram, “friends and family” is a subjective term that the parent company Facebook has never fully defined. A slew of questions followed. How do you get your posts to the maximum number of followers? How do hashtags work in the new set-up? Do videos perform better than photos in the new algorithm? Influencers scrambled to find answers and solutions to the big announcement that affected their lives.
While scant attention was paid to Disease X, Instagram influencers worked overtime to find solutions to a challenge that could affect their reach. For years, Instagram has studied user behaviour to better understand what sort of content we like to consume. The new Instagram algorithm employed machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence with a strong reliance on data, to identify consumption patterns. Posts with higher user engagement were nudged upwards and despite the influencers best efforts, no hacks would be able to compete with Instagram’s motive to make money from advertising, by capturing and selling the user’s attention.
With these changes, influencers felt the heat. Babani’s posts were viewed less and there was an increased pressure to post more sponsored content. Unlike the carefree days of the past, Babani was a commodity through which businesses would have an opportunity to tell their brand stories. Babani chose her collaborators carefully. She was a part of the #GucciFamily and an Estee Lauder partner but lines between an influencer’s authentic posts and those paid for by a brand began to blur. As the Kardashian-Jenner clan reached the apex of social media stardom, the art of monetising social media became a rat race to the top.
Then Disease X unveiled itself as COVID-19 spread around the globe. In the age of viral spread, nobody was immune from the virus.
Around noon last Friday Mario Dedivanovic, the make-up artist behind some of Kim
Kardashian’s most iconic looks, posted an Instagram story from his terrace in New York. It was a video of an ambulance wailing down the empty streets of Manhattan. Dedivanovic pointed his iPhone across the road and zoomed in on a paramedic as
he wheeled a woman wearing a mask into an ambulance. About a metre away, two men in plainclothes pushed a masked man on a wheelchair to another ambulance.
“This is so sad, two trucks at the same time on one block,” he said.
COVID-19 claimed more than 1,500 lives, Dedivanovic couldn’t escape the relentless sound of sirens. His next post was about a Master Class with a caption that read “who’s still doing their makeup while they #stay home?”
A few days later, Kylie Jenner popped up in a conversation with her best friend, Anastasia Karanikalaou on an Instagram Live.
“I’m so sorry, I have no idea how to work this thing,” Kylie giggled while figuring out how to use Instagram Live.
“Oh! You look so pretty,” her friend gushed.
“Make-up and Hair by Kylie. This is the first time I’ve worn my natural hair,” she said as the numbers on Instagram Live kept going up. “I feel so uncomfortable but this is such a good time to take your hair out and nails out. No lashes,” she said.
“We’re just natural queens,” Karanikalaou said.
The virus has not made social media less ubiquitous in the time of a pandemic, it has changed the focus from the trivial to the urgent.
Instagram has long encouraged users to post filtered images focusing on the highlights
of life, but for many, this was a masquerade for reality. By November 2016, an influencer backlash gained momentum. Already there was a creativity deficit as several influencers jumped into the same swimming pool at the Riad Jasmine in Marrakech
at different times. Their posts were almost identical: a languid breakfast in a turquoise pool surrounded by cozy cushions and potted plants. It was a scene developed by the French owners who had renovated the property with a blogger-focused
social media strategy in mind and it worked. About 80 per cent of the guests who visited the hotel came because of the posts.
The game has changed at viral speed in the last couple of months as COVID-19 spreads across the world. It’s an impressive commentary on the flexibility of social media as it adapts to new trends as well as the wealth of diversified tools available to users. The virus has not made social media less ubiquitous in the time of a pandemic, it has changed the focus from the trivial to the urgent.
Social media is malleable. It can be bent to many uses. Over the past decade, social media apps have reflected the most immediate priorities of people, often transforming societies. During the early days of the “Arab Spring” uprisings on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, protestors organised on Twitter. Their mobilisation on the app is partly credited with the downfall of Egypt’s long-reigning president, Hosni Mubarak. Again, when journalists were denied entry into Syria during the civil war, YouTube served as a primary broadcaster of the atrocities that were committed.
In this time of global turmoil, social media is a lifeline. Zoom is the place where governments conduct meetings, popstars hold concerts, couples have dates, and girlfriends share a laugh. Google Classroom keeps the children abreast with their work while Minecraft creates virtual worlds, from cities to universities where students from the University of Quaranteen chat. Houseparty is a sigh of relief where friends play games.Corporate meetings are held in Teams and Slack.
Global downloads of Skype, Zoom and Houseparty have surged by over 100 per cent. Zoom, the videoconferencing app, was downloaded 27 million times in March, up from 2.1 million times in January.
But a little fussed-about feature on Instagram is recreating the Internet of yesteryears. Instagram Live brings the eagerness to connect that users felt on ICQ in 1996, the freshness of a Nintendo N64 and the novelty of Microsoft Windows 95. It is the combination of Snapchat and Periscope. Launched in 2016, Live combined Twitter’s video broadcasting app with Snapchat’s ephemerality to create real-time videos that vanished at the end of the stream. According to Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, the aim was to strengthen relations with the people you love, and video streaming brought people together. Instagram would no longer just be about your “highlights” but your “moments.” All the same, Instagram Stories remained the firm favourite.
While Mark Zuckerberg pushed for IGTV and faced challenges on monetising the platform, web developers worked on Instagram Live in the darkness. They tweaked the app. First, they allowed the streamer to invite a friend to join. The developers hoped that the comfort of sharing a screen with someone would entice reluctant users. In 2017, Instagram enabled viewers to request to join the livestream and start broadcasting live as the host’s guest. Once the streamer accepted the request it wouldn’t be a monologue but a dialogue. With Live, it was hoped, interacting with guests would lead to new kinds of videos, interactions and conversations.
It wasn’t until COVID-19 that Live really took off.
Music can unite people in times of conflict. It was this belief that led Chris Martin to Instagram Live. He was meant to play
with Coldplay but with band members stuck in different countries, he sat in front of his camera and sang to his followers from his house. Accustomed to playing to sold-out concerts in front of thousands of people, he confessed. “I’ve never done
this before, so if I’m a bit nervous, I apologise.” He called it #TogetherAtHome and hoped that when his performance ended, someone else could take it over.
The performances online haven’t stopped since. John Legend, the ten-time Grammy award-winning artist, followed in a robe with no pants while his model wife and prolific-tweeter, Chrissy Teigen sat atop the piano in a towel sipping a glass of wine. “Music can heal,” he said. What started as an act of solidarity has taken a life of its own.
From rapper Tory Lanez’s crowded Quarantine Radio party that invited all celebrities to #KlubCorona in their imaginary cars and was attended by more than 300,000 viewers to the intimate party at legendary New York hotspot 1Oak, the parties don’t stop. At 1Oak, Drake and Rihanna’s banter kept 1,000 people on DJ Spade’s Live hooked. Users can travel through different time zones attending parties at the most prestigious clubs around the globe.
The real heroes of the movement, however, are ace-'90s hip-hop producer Timbaland of pre-Internet era fame who hosted a live battle with veteran producer Swizz Beatz on his Instagram Live. The duo played 20 tracks each, swaying the crowd in nostalgia, reminiscent of the street battles that were famous in the early days of hip hop. Timbaland dug into his repertoire of hits featuring Madonna and Rihanna while Swizz’s catalog consisted of tunes by Beyoncé and Jay-Z. With the old school masters in control they ushered in a new movement shining the spotlight on the people behind the music, the producers, the writers who haven’t capitalised on the social media fame.
With P. Diddy in the comments sections and 200,000 viewers, Timbaland invited other heavy weights from the industry and the number of people in the live went up the 250,000. Timbaland has no plans for monetising the battles. “Hopefully when we come out of this, the quality of music will be much higher,” he told Rolling Stone. The popularity of the format has inspired copycats and has the energy of a cultural movement. “It’s fun to explore a different medium as a necessity and not a curiosity,” says Bombay-based DJ SickFlip who did an online gig for NH7 Weekender. All his bookings for April are cancelled or indefinitely postponed.
Instead of IGTV, Facebook’s white horse has been Live. Netflix is launching a new series on its Instagram Live account on dealing with the pandemic. The debut is with teen heart-throb Noah Centino who will talk about self-care. Though Netflix has a strong marketing presence on Instagram, apparently this is less about self-promotion and more about social good.
“I’ve had to open up in different ways,” Babani said of COVID-19.
The most obvious departure from her immaculate feed was an entry into the kitchen where she made a Rajasthani “halwai style” puri bhaji with step-by-step directions. She fried onions, threw in some chili. In one video her chef was in the picture and an online backlash ensued as users demanded why she was making him commute under the stay-at-home orders. She jumped to her defence. He lived with the family.
Influencers long under the radar, who have came to epitomise the unchecked excesses of the Instagram-age came under fire. Babani was on edge after watching the takedown of Arielle Charnas, an Instagram influencer. Using her influence, Charnas wriggled to the front of a queue for COVID-19 testing, documenting the procedure for her followers. A few days after her results came positive, despite the shelter-in-place orders, she packed her family and fled her New York penthouse for a home in the Hamptons. With the online furore, at least one of her business partners ended their sponsorship. But Charnas started a trend, as other influencers followed suit, fleeing cities for smaller communities while documenting the ride in keeping with Zuckerberg’s commitment to clicks instead of caution.
Enter Zack Bia, a young man famous for being famous. A member of the elite set who
have transformed fame into million-dollar careers, a jack of many spades. He is a DJ, a friend of Kendall Jenner, member of the cool crowd featuring Lukas Sabbat, Bella Hadid and just about anyone who is someone on the internet. His sudden ascent
to the front row shows, had prompted “who is zack bia” Google searches.
About a week ago, in what appeared to be a garage, Zack Bia stood in front of a green screen with shades on in a Tony Montana t-shirt. In front was an elaborate set-up with CDJs, a JDM mixer and four computers with the Rekordbox software. The set-up was the sort of control-freakish rehearsal that typified Instagram. Together with Pedro Cavaliere they debuted a Live, with psychedelic visuals and a tour in a dinky car with the caption “IG Live will never be the same.” Mid-way Bia dropped Drake’s new tune, Toosie Slide at the first virtual drop party.
Toosie Slide’s video, shot during quarantine with Drake wearing a face mask while walking around his gold and marble mansion has all the gimmicks expected from the man behind Hotline Bling and the KiKi Challenge. Most importantly, the video includes a dance routine, a concept simple enough to ensure virality and the rest is #challenge history. Twenty-four hours after the song dropped, #toosieslide had more than 21.7 million views on TikTok.
Despite the attention and the renewed energy, there was no denying one fact. The leader in video
content was neither YouTube nor Facebook but TikTok. As Facebook was gearing to take on YouTube, the little-known player disrupted the tech race. TikTok is
the great app story of 2019, the year it became the most downloaded app. TikTok was the most downloaded non-game app worldwide for February with nearly 113 million installs, which
represented a 96.5 per cent increase from February 2019. The countries with the most installs of the app during this period were India at 41.3 per cent of its total downloads and Brazil at 8.6 per cent. It is currently the most downloaded on Apples app store and Google Play.
As TikTok took away audiences from Instagram, a “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude developed. A slew of celebrities joined and with Kylie Jenner’s arrival on the platform, its place as the social media tool with the greatest buzz was established.
In November 2019, Facebook set its sights on TikTok by launching the Reels tool that mimics some of TikTok’s most popular features that allow users to add music to 15-second clips that can then be posted in Instagram’s existing Stories feature. Facebook put up its usual defence against mimicry, when its director of product management said “sharing video with music is a pretty universal idea we think everyone might be interested in using.”
Unlike Facebook and YouTube, TikTok operates ones of the most sophisticated AI algorithms in the world. Rather than a larger of view of user behaviour, TikTok uses machine learning to evaluate the quality of every video upload. Ads on TikTok don’t feel like marketing ploys as they come in the format of a brand takeover, in-feed video, a hashtag challenge or a branded lenses. Instagram campaigns can’t be reproduced on TikTok since the app values viral content and its own band of influencers.
For the past year, Babani monitored TikTok sceptically. She opened an account but
seldom used it. Many Instagram influencers had jumped on the bandwagon. But she felt awkward on the app. Though bloggers continued to occupy front row seats next to magazine editors at fashion weeks, famous TikTok’ers, (read: Charli D’Amelio)
appeared for the first time in the front row at Milan Fashion Week, held at the same time the first COVID-19 death was reported in Italy.
As markets tank, with stores shuttered and Instagram promos seem distasteful, COVID-19 holds the power to bring a transformation in the way we lived lives online. Perhaps it is time to look back at the race that brought us these excesses, the brands that fed the machinery that created perfect pouts and augmented realities, the ads we consumed unknowingly and the stars we created by the tap of our fingertips. Last night, Babani uploaded her first TikTok on Instagram stories and if her followers like it, she can’t help herself, she’ll oblige.
Title illustration by Karishma Chitalia