An increasing number of amateur Indian performers are gaining both money and respect through a short-video social media app made in China.
Gao Chen (second from left) poses for a photo with Indian children. (Photo: IC)
Gao Chen, a 30-year-old Chinese woman, has been leading a team in India for Vmate, an app owned by a subsidiary of internet giant Alibaba, to discover talented people and shoot short videos of them doing seemingly ordinary things-dancing, singing, joking or making handicrafts-in ways that grab attention.
"We don't just discover these people. We also teach them how to grow their popularity and maintain their visibility on our sharing platform," Gao said.=
The team has cultivated around 4,000 Indian cybercelebrities in the past year. They include households, elderly women, laborers and street vendors.
"I often go to talk with them to evaluate whether they can represent a group of people and get the public's attention," she said.
As the influence of short videos increases, they can change people's lives.
For example, Komal Singh, a woman in northeastern India, started by uploading videos of herself dancing indoors. Gao's team discovered through big data analysis that app users tend to click on videos of women wearing traditional Indian clothes. So she suggested to Singh that she do her dances in colorful costumes, and that she find better backgrounds outside her home.
After half a year, Singh has accumulated more than 1 million fans on Vmate, which has also brought her a respectable income of more than 20,000 rupees ($279) per month.
Singh told Gao that she learned about videos from her husband, who now steps in to help with housework when she is busy recording her dances-unusual in an Indian family.
"Many Indian women like Singh have achieved fame and money from Vmate, earning them new respect in their families," Gao said. "It's not just about their domestic status being raised. They become more independent overall."
Predictably, not everyone is an instant fan of short videos. Take, for example, the business boss of Suresh Kumar, an employee who uses the stage name Suru to sell women's clothes at a sari store in Surat, Gujarat state, India. Kumar puts on saris to show them off through the online videos.
A sari typically consists of a long swath of cloth that wraps around the waist, with one end draped over the shoulder, leaving one's bare belly exposed, so it's an interesting visual for Vmate followers.
Kumar's boss was not a fan at first, worrying that the mini-shows would affect the business. Gradually, however, the videos brought more customers to the store. The number of Suru fans has been increasing steadily. Now the boss has changed his mind, and he's a Vmate fan, too, Kumar said.
Launched in 2016, Vmate, owned by Alibaba's UC Web, initially offered full-length movies but later shifted to user-generated short videos.
In May, Alibaba announced an investment of $100 million in Vmate, demonstrating how serious it is about the growing social video app market-something it missed out on in China.
Many of the features Vmate offers parallel those offered by Byte-Dance's TikTok, which currently has more than 120 million active users in India. Other similar platforms, such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Snapchat, are also in the mix.
Cheng Daofang, chief executive of Vmate, said the app now has 30 million monthly active users worldwide. The company's overseas strategy is "local innovation", a strategy being applied to India that has proved effective in China, but with a more local angle.
Cheng believes that globalization will flow from localization.
"We have Chinese employees working in India, cooperating with Indian staff to explore quality content," he said. "During this process, the key is to understand local users, cultures and young Indians' lifestyles and thoughts.... We made correct decisions at the right time in India based on our preliminary studies of the market."
At the end of 2017, as Vmate accelerated, India's 4G network was also developing rapidly. It has provided strong hardware foundation for data-intensive videos.
From a cultural perspective, Indian people are said to be more outgoing than Chinese. They are not shy when facing cameras, Cheng said.
Dai Jiawen, the head of operations for Vmate, said: "There are no boundaries on the internet. The users of Vmate are not only from India but also from countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and even Africa. India is our core market, and we're making great efforts there. Meanwhile, big data can tell us where new opportunities lie."