The theory of the 'timepass' nation

I used to notice that the two lady trainers in my gym were always glued to their smart phones. I did not know what they were watching and so decided to make a snide comment: “Are you trainers or are you here to watch useless videos”. They protested violently and told me that they watch gym training videos on their smart phones, to become better at what they do. I quickly apologised and said to myself, “I wish this was true all over India”. 

The Economist (June 8, 2019) in its article, A global timepass economy: How the pursuit of leisure drives internet use, has singled out India as the global capital of smart phone video consumption. As of June 2019 Indian smart phone users were consuming 8.8 GB per user per month. These numbers per se mean nothing but when seen in the context of an average American consuming less than one third of this amount, you realise the immense spread of digital data/video in our country. The inherent harm and the potential for good. 

The article quotes a Pew Research Center study done in sub-Saharan Africa and I was comforted that we are not alone. While 85 per cent said they use the internet to stay in touch and “timepass”, only 17 per cent said they used it to take classes. Yet another survey done in Zambia confirmed that entertainment is the first thing that is demanded by users. 

Remember these are not affluent consumers who belong to the “liesure class”. In Thorstein Veblen’s classic work, The theory of the Leisure Class, he postulated that through division of labour and segregation of classes, it was the well-heeled who had the time and the resources to spend on what he termed conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. The poor were to spend almost all their time toiling in the factories and fields. 

The advent of smart phones, the drop in mobile internet charges seem to have upended Thorstein Veblen’s theory. The poor now are indulging in conspicuous leisure. Just look around you. The lift operator is watching movies on his smart phone, often in his mother tongue. In 2016, there were only 20 YouTube channels from India with more than one million subscribers; now there are more than 600. T-Series became the most subscribed channel on Youtube dethroning PewDiePie, a Swedish entertainer. In fact, one of YouTube’s top 50 channels included one that is in pure Bhojpuri. 

Just as Karl Marx described religion as the opium of the people, today, I suspect, timepass videos have taken over the mantle, to keep the masses suitably engaged. There are multiple spinoffs from this phenomenon. 

The first and the most obvious is the growing demand for digital video content. Not only are old movies, old television shows getting repurposed for the smart phone medium, there is a growing demand for fresh content on new platforms. I think just as there were call centres mushrooming in every city of India, today we have digital video content producers mushrooming all over India. 

The second is the growing opportunity for brands to ride this video addiction. By creating content in partnership with YouTube channels that have a significant number of subscribers (our 600-plus channels have a million-plus subscribers), brands can help create content that is engaging. Think of a series of recipe videos from a food brand. Or skin tips from a company focused on dermatology (check out Skin Diaries on YouTube). Or baby care videos (J&J’s strategic acquisition of gives them a continued edge in the baby care game). The list is endless. 

Finally my favorite topic: The vast potential that digital video content offers with skilling tips to the multitude. My swimming coach was quick to advise me that I should watch a few videos on YouTube before I came for my next session (I did spend a few hours on this task, and it was a big help). The National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) has approved 38 sector skill councils. The topics range from painting to plumbing, media and entertainment to tourism and hotels, automotive to telecom to textile. My friend who is chairing the Painting Council was speaking about the yeoman service the council is doing around the country. I am given to understand that NSDC has also catalogued several hundred skills in great detail. Each and every skill council needs its own digital video channel with a large number of usable videos. More importantly these videos need to have a strong engagement factor (something that Byju’s managed to crack), and need to be promoted actively so that they don’t end up languishing on the NSDC platform. 

Just imagine if we can get the 400 million smart phone users to watch just a few hours of skill development videos every day, we might indeed be able to make them join the real leisure class in the foreseeable future, and not live in the false shadow of conspicuous leisure. 

And my gym trainers would have taught me a very valuable lesson indeed. 

The author is an independent brand strategist and founder,

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