Forget Snapchat, this app is the next big thing with teenagers in Southeast Asia

The Bigo app relies on game-like elements, where the more you participate the more experience points you get.PHOTO: BIGO

The Bigo app relies on game-like elements, where the more you participate the more experience points you get.PHOTO: BIGO

Forget Snapchat, this app is the next big thing with teenagers in Southeast Asia

Do you know what the top free app in the Singapore App Store is right now? Go on, guess. WhatsApp? Uber? Facebook Messenger? Probably Pokemon Go? All solid guesses – and that last one is already wreaking havoc in the charts.

But according to SimilarWeb, up until a few days ago, before the pocket monster rampage landed, the number one spot was claimed by Bigo Live – a live-streaming video app made by a Singaporean team.

Bigo Live Broadcasting launched in March 2016 and is available on iOS and Android. At first glance, it’s not much different from live-streaming apps like Periscope and Meerkat.

Yet Bigo just seems to resonate a lot more with young people in Southeast Asia.

Users range from teenagers to twenty somethings and the broadcasts mostly feature them going about their lives, just with a camera pointed at them. Conversations go on between users and the broadcaster.

The desire to spontaneously share details about your life that drives millennial juggernaut Snapchat – and, consequently, the desire of others to witness that – looks like a key factor to Bigo’s appeal.

The content runs the gamut from surprisingly mundane to mildly racy. In a stream from Vietnam, a girl is eating noodles while watching TV. A guy who looks like he’s at a retail store job is playing loud music and staring at his phone screen. Some streams, especially from Thailand, tend to get a little cleavagey. Unsurprisingly, those accounts get showered with virtual gifts.

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Both versions of the app are consistently in the top 20 apps used in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos – a little less so in Malaysia, but still cracking SimilarWeb’s top 50 for those countries. App Annie’s stats also show a rapid increase of activity in the past month.

Bigo is a Singapore-based team, describing itself as a “fast-growing internet company” working on “video broadcast and VoIP-related products and services all over the world.” It claims to own over 40 patents in VoIP and video technology. Besides the live-streaming app, it also offers a telecommunications product that enables free international calls and messaging over the internet.

The startup is connected to Chinese powerhouse YY, a social network that also relies heavily on video. YY is reported to have over 300 million users and is currently beating its compatriot Weibo in revenue and growth.

According to an official press release, YY entered an agreement with Bigo in 2014 to give the Singaporean startup “its free voice-over IP service, called Weihui.” YY also claims to own a 27.8 percent stake in Bigo.

We contacted Bigo to request its input in this story but we did not hear back.


What do you do with it?

The Bigo app relies heavily on game-like elements, where the more you participate (following other users, broadcasting, and so on), the more experience points you get. You use those to climb levels and that seems to help push your streams to more viewers.

According to the app, “the best way to get [experience points] is to send more gifts.” This is where it gets complicated.

There’s an internal currency represented by “diamonds,” which the user can buy directly through microtransactions. Prices vary depending on the payment method: in Singapore, using Google Wallet, you can start with S$1 (US$0.75) to get 42 diamonds. That goes all the way to about US$89 using Visa or MasterCard, which will buy you 5,454 diamonds. The app also supports MOL, the Malaysia-headquartered online gaming currency provider.

You can “gift” virtual items to the streamer, from rings to tiaras to sports cars – items you buy with your diamonds. For example, a flower costs 1 diamond, a ring is worth 10 of them. The “Supercar” will set you back 3,000 diamonds and is the most expensive item available.

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Now stay with me: The items you gift are translated into “beans,” which the streamer can stock up. The more popular the streamer, the more beans they tend to collect. The streamer can then cash out those beans for real money. The current bean exchange rate on the app is 210 beans for US$1.

To cash out, the bean hoarder must have at least 6,700 beans in their account. That translates to about US$32. A stream I just watched had almost 890,000 beans, which would, in theory, net the streamer around US$4,200 if he chose to cash it all out. Not a bad payout for mostly sitting around and talking to your phone’s front-facing camera – although it’s quite possible there are details there I’m missing which could mean a lower amount.

The feature has landed the app in hot water in countries like Vietnam, where the online exchange of real money runs afoul of local laws.

So what goes on in there?

In Indonesia, a girl is tidying up her room and a guy is sitting at a cafe talking to the camera. In Singapore, there’s quite a few teenage girls and boys talking about themselves and having fun with the chat. Several male streamers break out their guitars for impromptu performances.

The 890,000 beans guy (I think he was from Thailand) was absent from the screen when I tuned in, but had music blaring from somewhere. Also there were a lot of cashew nuts around for some reason.

The users’ young age lend an inherent creepiness in the core concept. Obviously, no one is forcing all those people to broadcast but the combination of overexposure-happy attitudes and transactional nature of the app makes watching those streams (and the accompanying chat messages) a little uncomfortable.

Things get a little more worrying when you discover online forums dedicated to sharing pictures of popular streamers (mostly female) with people who seem to know them or where they live or work in real life. It has less to do with the app itself and more with how people tend to handle their online presence nowadays, but the creep is still strong with this one.

But why is it so popular?

The overall popularity of personal live streaming plus the local player advantage certainly help Bigo along. Periscope was the first key player in the space, eclipsing first mover Meerkat and getting snapped up by Twitter, and Facebook jumped on the bandwagon with its Live Video offering.

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In Asia, there’s plenty of such services. Japanese app Twitcasting has been offering personal live-streaming since 2010. Other apps like Indonesia’s Cliponyu diversify the concept by giving it a specific theme, in this case DJing. Another Indonesian live-streaming app, called Nonolive, also features beautiful people with taglines like “Fall in love with me,” “Fun, easy-going singer,” and “I want to give you attention.”

With Bigo, first and foremost, the tech works. The app performs well and all streams load fast and are generally of good quality. Given the breadth of markets and internet connections it has to work with, it’s no small feat.

The gamey nature and the gift and currency systems in Bigo are a big part of the appeal. Unlike Periscope, where your follower and viewer count are your only real feedback, Bigo keeps you engaged by getting you invested in its community, both literally and figuratively. The payout for prolific streamers is an extra incentive to keep using the app.

The younger demographic is also a draw. Like Snapchat, Bigo has seemingly been built up around young users who are more willing to create and watch video content constantly. The fact that users can go on the app and find people exactly like them helps spread the message.

Given that the app has been active for less than six months now, its performance is impressive. It took the arrival of an unprecedented international runaway hit to knock it lower down in the charts in Singapore, and I imagine Bigo’s users overlap with Pokemon Go players quite a bit. It remains to be seen how long the company can maintain this momentum, but for now it looks like its cracked personal live-streaming in the region.

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