Now that the president of Indonesia has entered the fray, we can probably say video blogging has reached the apex of its popularity. Live video blogging has taken the region by storm, and BIGO LIVE, one of the biggest live stream apps in the region with over 70 million users, is now valued at $400 million.
It functions the same as many other live streaming apps, like Periscope and Facebook Live: users can stream anything from eating lunch to a night out. BIGO's twist is viewers can give gifts, called 'Diamonds' and 'Beans,' and these gifts can be exchanged for cash.
The app has become an obsession for many. Up to 30 million BIGO users spend 40 minutes a day on the app, pulling all-nighters, watching streams of a strangers' everyday life. Fifteen percent of BIGO's entire user base comes from Indonesia, and the massive local popularity has lead to a growing number of sugar daddies who are addicted to the app.
"I had to borrow money from friends to pay off a loan on my motorcycle. After that I restrained myself from BIGO, I was afraid I'd go broke," a user who wished to remain anonymous told VICE Indonesia.
He said he once spent a third of his monthly income on the app, almost ruining him. The man lives and works in Jakarta in order to make enough money to support his family back in Central Java. "I make Rp 3 million ($224) a month, and wire Rp 1 million ($74) back home to my wife and kids. The rest of my salary is used to survive Jakarta. One time, I almost forked out a million on the app."
"I stayed for the nudes."
The app offers users a currency called Beans and Diamonds, worth Rp 100 (.007 cents) and Rp 300 (2 cents), respectively. The extremely low cost of entry has lead to broadcasters cashing in from viewers around the world. Since September 2016 Vietnamese broadcaster Thao Duyen Tran collected a total of 11,152,317, beans, worth $53,246. Locally, Indonesian live stream star Beyla raked in 2,279,188 beans, worth $10,885.
Callista Lawrence joined the app in 2016, "I first got into it because of the money. I mostly just talk and have conversations with people on the stream, but right now I want to steer away from the app because of the backlash regarding illicit content." She makes about Rp 1 million ($74) per month through her shows BIGO.
Like its digital ancestor, Omegle, BIGO made the jump to porn early on. The app has attracted criticism because some broadcasters were putting out X-rated content. In the early days of BIGO, broadcasters performed sexual acts that involved stripteases, flashing, and masturbation. A YouTube search with the keyword 'unch unch'—a popular catchphrase among users who ask to be flashed—brings up thousands of examples.
Callista has received requests to 'unch unch,' but she says she never takes it seriously. "In order to be labeled an 'official' broadcaster, you have to actually apply to BIGO LIVE and audition. They make us sign an agreement, and if we violate it, they can easily ban us. People are very cautious now because of the backlash."
Last December, Indonesia's Communication and Information Ministry (Kominfo) banned 1O IPs used by BIGO. The number of the IPs blocked was a drop in the bucket for the app, as the move was mostly intended as a warning. The ministry threatened to fully block the app if the IPs refused to play by the ministry's rules against online pornography.
This month, the ban was lifted after BIGO said it would open up an office in Jakarta. The presence of a physical office was considered by the ministry as "a good sign" that the company will use the office to filter out illicit content. BIGO has said it has implemented several levels of censorship and filters to combat porn spreading on the app.
The quick rise of BIGO in Southeast Asia has lead many to wonder if its popularity is sustainable and what the app's actual purpose is. There have been claims that BIGO doesn't bring much innovation to the live stream market.
"They merely 'enhance' an existing product rather than innovate something from scratch. It's a waste of everybody's resources," said Tito Pratikto, a director at a local startup. "Yes, it's a business where revenue is the ultimate aim, but we are forgetting that a startup's basic function is to make breakthroughs and to solve problems."
Bowi Artgita, an avid BIGO user, said he chose the app over other options like Facebook Live and Periscope because of an ad that popped up on his Facebook feed. "I noticed the BIGO ad because it looked fun. I stayed for the nudes."
"I don't use other live stream services such as Facebook, YouTube, or Instagram. I spend too much money on BIGO already. Although I have never spend a dime to give on gifts, but if you sum up all the data packages I buy to check out girls, it amounts to a large chunk of income."
Fortunately for Bowi, the habit hasn't had much negative impact on his life.
"It's a part of my social media routine now," he said. "It used to be all-nighters on the weekend, but now I spend no more than ten minutes scrolling through all my feeds. Especially if there are no hot girls, why would I stay around? There are still nude broadcasters on the app from Vietnam and Thailand. I don't need to speak the language to understand what a pretty girl looks like, right?"