You hate to see it. Or love to. Depending.
To possess an Instagram account in the year 2020 is to be aware of that sign on the top left corner of your mobile device. The one that notifies you that someone somewhere has just started yet another live video session.
The very nature of the internet of course means that these sessions are democratized. Such that media icon Funmi Iyanda could be trying to make sense of the new world order with her new show on a Friday night. And two nights later, icons Timbaland and Swizz Beatz could be a world away throwing down a face off for the culture. On another day, or perhaps on the same day- the platform can handle multitasking- a Nollywood celebrity could be hosting a harmless meet and greets with fans, while on another corner of the Zuckerberg owned platform, a wife of a now deceased politician reveals disturbing elements of her marriage in a chat with her daughter. No judgement here, people have several interests.
Instagram has always been popular, what with the 1 billion active users per month that post aspects of their lives on the platform. And in the last few months, since shelter-in-place measures were introduced, a lot more people have gravitated to the internet to help make sense of everything. Practically every social media platform has seen a rise in engagement since the world turned to lockdowns to halt the spread of the coronavirus. WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram have all experienced a 40%+ increase in usage from under-35-year-olds according to a report by Kantar, a consulting firm.
But in Nigeria, if it feels like there is a service that has benefited the most, jumping from cute afterthought to preferred means of mass communication, it is Instagram’s Live feature.
Launched in 2016, Instagram Live is a feature on Instagram Stories that allows users to stream video to followers and engage with them in real time. When users broadcast live video streams on their accounts, a ring highlights their profile picture in Instagram Stories to alert followers that they can view this live stream.
According to Facebook, parent company of Instagram since a 2012 historic 1 billion dollar acquisition scaled through, the Live feature saw a 70% surge in the United States during the COVID-19 peak period. In areas where lock downs were in place, usage doubled. 500 million users currently use the Live section daily. It is safe to extrapolate and count Nigeria as one of those places with high engagement.
Instagram Live didn’t just break out of nowhere though. There is some method to the madness. As a tool for communication, Instagram Live is surprisingly effective. During the peak of the lock down in Nigeria, with concert venues shut and public gatherings on hold, Instagram Live was the unlikely savior creeping in to assume prime position.
Dj’s hosted virtual night clubs, musicians held virtual concerts and the popular Battle of the Hits series adapted the American Verzuz format to host a series of buzzed about face offs between the biggest producers and artistes in the country. So whether your interest is entertainment, news, state of the world addresses or health tips, everything was happening on the live pages. And in real time too.
Perhaps the best thing about Instagram Live is that it isn’t exclusive to celebrities or a certain group of privileged folks. The technology is available and within reach. Anyone- individual or brand- with a mobile phone, computer or tablet and an Instagram account can get in on the action either by joining a live event, or by hosting one.
There are a number of reasons that explain the popularity and general acceptance of Instagram Live in Nigeria but top on the list has to be accessibility.
It costs little to connect to Instagram Live. A phone, working internet connection and a handful of followers are usually all that it takes. These are items that are within reach of the average Nigerian. No one has to leave home to get on this particular train.
Instagram Live delivers all of the promise of the internet, the world within reach, at the slide of a finger or press of a button. Only better, as it is all in real time with room for instant interaction. Even as it seemed like the biological virus was trying hard to keep us apart, here was a tool bringing us together in real time.
Have you been looking to connect with a #BBNaija star? Easy. Connect via a live session and let them know exactly how you feel in the comments section. Be nice though. They give as good as they get. Always fantasized about talking dirty with your favorite Highlife crooner? Try the raucous Beer Parlour Conversations hosted by WAGA-G and featuring Flavor and Phyno as guests. As an added layer, there is room for discovery as well. Instagram Live allows you invite people into your home or office, giving off a certain semblance of intimacy.
During these sessions, the authenticity is as important as the accessibility. Because the videos are mostly unprofessional and uncut even, celebrities are not likely to be as camera ready and unapproachable as they would on television or on recorded posts.
Going live gives allows for a certain amount of spontaneity and allows for a kind of inclusion whether real or perceived. Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University explained this pandemic driven uptake to Business Insider. “People are turning to screens and technology to get their social needs met that they can’t get in real life. Generally, people are not designed to be isolated from each other. It’s not evolutionary how we’ve been programmed.”
From sports to movies, concerts to religion, the idea of living collectively and experiencing moments as part of a whole has been taken away by COVID-19. What is left of the ruins, is the internet. It might be a pale substitute for physical connection, but it is the next best thing. With live events, everyone is living the same experience at the same time. The element of spontaneity means no one quite knows what will happen next. This tends to create a sense of heightened curiosity. Viewers are likely to end up watching longer than they would stick around for recorded stuff because who knows what will be missed should they look away even for a moment?
This was evidenced during the lockdown by the online fascination with the curious interactions between FatherDMW, an online comedian and Eva Apio, a London-based Ugandan model. A seemingly random Live session went viral and turned both FatherDMW and Apio into trending online celebrities. The duo capitalized on the unusual interest and hosted several more sessions.
If it can be argued that Instagram Live has been life affirming in its own way, hence the collective embrace, there is also the element of it that speaks to our collective vanity as well. It isn’t the first time you have heard that Nigerians are a loud set of people existing in bold living color. Instagram is a perfect medium for serving this special characteristic. The need to be seen and heard by as many people as possible.
Guaranteeing maximum visibility, the algorithm of the Live feature is designed in such a way that followers would have to make an effort to miss out on the stories. Once a new Live session starts, not only does it assume the number one position on the story feed, there is also a push notification alerting followers that a new live session is underway. This is simply a short cut to the front of line and in terms of social media real estate is considered prime property. No need to struggle for attention, the feature wants to help you be noticed.
Live sessions allow for real time engagement. Fans, friends, family and well wishers can set up camp in the comments section, typing out sweet nothings or oohing and aahing over whatever it is they are supposed to ooh and aah about. Even though the Live sessions are ephemeral and disappear after 24 hours, it doesn’t have to end there. They can continue life on the regular stories section. Instagram’s algorithm also gives organic engagement boosts to users who embrace this feature making the videos more likely to appear in Instagram’s discovery section. That way new people can locate the followers. It really does appeal to our vain side.
All of this is another way of saying that for a culture that likes to package and keep up appearances, Instagram Live is the perfect boost. That need to show off, to give off the impression that life is much more fabulous than it is may not be uniquely Nigerian, but it has certainly found a home in these parts. At its core also, Instagram Live is about promotion. Of the self and the brand, sometimes both are indistinguishable. The same way a lot of celebrities enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame consider themselves brands.
The data according to New York Magazine shows that 80% of audiences would rather watch a video than read a blog. So for people with a product or agenda to sell, Instagram Live makes great sense. Then there is the analytics component where whoever is hosting the video can monitor the engagement. At its’s peak the Battle of the Hits session that paired producers Sarz and Shizzi in March was viewed by over 22,000 viewers. That kind of engagement can only come organically from an audience that is genuinely interested. Both FatherDMW and Eva Opio received major boosts from their Live escapades. FatherDMW now boasts of over 800,000 followers on Instagram. Chances are he capitalizes on this to pursue other interests.
Success has many friends and this is just as true in Nigeria as it is anywhere else. As with many things that social media supports, there is greater impetus when everyone is doing it at the same time. People like to feel cool about themselves doing what they see makes other people feel cool. Social media thrives on the currency of what is hot and trending at the time, allowing for the bandwagon effect to flood in and perpetuate itself.
This bandwagon effect is a type of cognitive bias that causes people to adopt certain behaviors because simply because everyone else is doing it. Sometimes it isn’t as important to understand why people are doing things, it is enough that you join the flow. Being cool never hurt anybody and helps build up social capital. At the height of the shelter-in-place measures, as more and more profiles- brands, celebrities and influencers- especially began to adopt Instagram’s Live feature, it kind of kicked off a chain reaction that has now had everyone and their mother now rushing to put on a Live session.
With Instagram everyone is a star and instead of a white-hot center sucking up all of the social attention, there can be several smaller centers. And everyone can create a semblance of that from their own corner.
Even though COVID-19 was the great amplifier, in retrospect it seems like Instagram Live was a potentially success simply waiting for the right opportunity to be harnessed into something truly influential. And in Nigeria it was foisted into the perfect culture medium. Instagram doesn’t just make sure you are seen, the Live feature also ensures you are heard as well.
What is not to love about it?
Wilfred Okiche is a medic, reader, writer, journalist, culture critic, and occasional ruffler of feathers. One of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space, his writing has appeared extensively in platforms like YNaija.com and 360nobs.com. Okiche has provided editorial assistance to the UK Guardian and has had his work published in African Arguments, Africa is a Country and South Africa’s City Press. He has received trainings and acquired experience in multimedia and online journalism. He also appears on the culture television show, Africana Literati. He has participated at critic programs in Lagos, Durban and Rotterdam.