In a whimsically absurd universe where the likes of Keynes would have been breaking it down in a viral dance video, and Adam Smith chronicled the ‘Wealth of Social Media Nations’, we find Kausar, a young Pakistani embodying the digital zeitgeist. Her dreams are not woven from traditional threads but are crafted from the fabric of likes, shares, and viral fame on platforms like TikTok and YouTube.
These platforms have revolutionized more than just entertainment in Pakistan. They have spawned an alternative economy, an arena where even those without formal education or traditional career paths can find lucrative opportunities. As of January 2023, TikTok boasts around 25.2 million users in Pakistan, and many, like Kausar, are leveraging follower count and engagement strategies to monetize their content. YouTube also has a significant presence, with 71.70 million users, about 30.1% of Pakistan’s population. Pakistani YouTube creators typically earn between $100,000 and $130,000 annually, with earnings significantly influenced by ad rates and viewership.
In the broader context, the ICT core industry contributes 1.2% to Pakistan’s GDP, projected to rise to 8.15%, while the digital and IT sectors, inclusive of social media, add 2.7%, expected to grow to 13% by 2025.
The mobile ecosystem, vital for social media, plays a key role in economic growth, contributing directly to GDP and indirectly through sectors like marketing and networking.
However, this digital gold rush is not without its shadows. Beneath the surface of instant fame and fortune lies a Keynesian paradox. The stability of this new economy is questionable. What if these platforms change their policies or their appeal fades? The economic repercussions could be severe, especially for those who have sidelined traditional employment or education in pursuit of digital fame.
Moreover, the societal impact of these platforms raises profound concerns. In Kausar’s realm, the pursuit of virality can blur the lines between freedom and exploitation. The quest for likes often overshadows genuine talent and meaningful content. This digital landscape is rife with content that is sometimes uneducated, loose, and even offensive, challenging societal norms and values.
The pursuit of digital fame in Pakistan has also led to tragic outcomes. Several TikTokers have lost their lives in dangerous attempts to create viral content, starkly highlighting the extreme risks some take for online recognition. Their relentless quest for attention has stripped them of privacy, making them targets of public scrutiny and sometimes backlash. Moreover, these platforms have become a breeding ground for content that encourages immoral activities and disrupts societal norms. Videos made recklessly, without regard for location or context, have disturbed public spaces and contributed to societal discord. The lack of education among many content creators amplifies this issue, as they wield significant influence without understanding the social and ethical implications of their content. This trend poses a threat to Pakistani youth and society, perpetuating ideals and behaviours often in conflict with the country’s cultural and moral values.
This brings forth age-old philosophical questions: Where is the line drawn between self-expression and societal responsibility? Are we, in our quest for digital freedom, inadvertently enabling harmful behaviour?
The time spent by Pakistan’s youth in this digital pursuit, especially for those like Kausar, represents a significant diversion from potentially productive economic activities. The economic impact of these lost hours, coupled with the resources invested in digital platforms, might soon weigh heavily on Pakistan’s broader economic landscape.
In this digital age, where even economic theorists like Adam Smith might have been influencers, the invisible hand of the market is also shaping social norms and values. For every Kausar who finds success, numerous others risk losing sight of sustainable careers and education, lured by the ephemeral promise of digital success.
The challenge for Pakistan in regulating these platforms is significant. While outright bans are controversial and often ineffective, there is an urgent need for nuanced guidelines that balance freedom of speech with the prevention of harmful behaviours and misinformation.
Kausar’s journey epitomizes a generation straddling the line between digital aspirations and real-world responsibilities. It is imperative for all stakeholders – from the government to platform providers and civil society – to work together in shaping a digital landscape that is both economically beneficial and socially responsible. In our pursuit of digital prosperity, the wisdom of economists like Keynes and Smith is perhaps more relevant than ever, reminding us of the importance of balancing digital wealth with real-world values and responsibilities.
The author is a dynamic academician, trainer and researcher who has a multidisciplinary background in Economics, Blue Economy, Ecofeminism, Institutional Governance, and Climate Change. Internationally, he has been affiliated with the Rensselaer University, Harvard University, Cambridge University, and the University of Bern-Switzerland, amongst several others. He also serves as the Board of Director for Maritime Study Forum, Islamabad. He is a visiting Professor at Institut Supérieur d’Economie et de Management Université de Nice Sophia Antipolis France, Tsinghua University, Beijing, Peoples Republic of China.