A glistening building, with a shiny exterior resembling the scales on a fish, reflecting light in all the different colors of the rainbow, stands in the desert of UAE today. The Pakistani Pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020 is a spectacular display showcasing the ‘hidden treasures’ of Pakistan. Participating in trade expos and tireless diplomacy goes a long way in garnering a business-friendly image for countries. And Pakistan has some of the key ingredients to offer as well, a young population (more than 60 per cent Pakistanis are under the age of 30), an extensive telecommunications network (186 million cellular subscribers, 106 million broadband subscribers), and a geographic location that connects East Asia to MENA (Middle East, Europe and North Africa).
But there is an old trick, perhaps the oldest trick in the book, that Pakistan is missing at the moment. It used to be called cinema, but in this day and age of pocket-sized digital screens and Facebook feeds, it is simply called ‘content.’ Remember when the Cold War was wrapping up, it was Rambo winning hearts and minds across the world. At the turn of the century, it was Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding convincing the world of India’s magical dance routines. Almost a decade later, it was Slumdog millionaire. In today’s world it is digital content that promotes well stitched political narratives and advances one’s economic interests. Pakistani content is missing from the global stage and until we become a part of that conversation with the big boys, shiny pavilions at global expos can only take us so far.
Why is it that Pakistani content is not competing at the level it should be? Dr Muhammad Babar Chohan argues that “the downfall of Pakistan’s film industry is a result of ill-conceived dubious national visions.” Zulfiqar Ali and Fahd Zulfiqar from the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics argue that “when it comes to Pakistan, conceptualisation (sic) of cinema as a market for social change is lacking, both theoretically and pragmatically.” From a policy maker’s perspective, what is the prescription to these problems?
In 2018, Pakistan introduced its first film and broadcasting policy. This was a very positive step. Step two is that our regulations need to be supportive of our content producers and distributors. As our regulatory framework for digital media evolves, there is a key understanding that is crucial for policy makers. Often the digital media landscape is bundled together into a monolith, as though content producers and providers on the internet are all cut from the same cloth. The truth could not be further from the reality.
As a starting point, lets introduce an important distinction. Broadly speaking, there are two types of online content, user generated content (UGC) and online curated content (OCC). UGC platforms allow users to directly self-publish their content on their platform with little to no supervision. Think of your social media platforms. OCC platforms play a significant and primary role in choosing and controlling the content being made available for viewers, for example, online content platforms, etc. OCC providers typically have much more editorial control over the content on their platforms, it is carefully curated and often has significantly higher production value.
But why should the regulators care who is producing the content, whether it’s a multi-million-dollar studio production or a film school student shooting on their smartphone? The answer is business strategy and consumer choice.
UGC providers typically rely on advertising revenue, which is why they work on a model to push content. The more views a Facebook post gets, the more revenue it generates. OCC providers work on a subscription model, meaning they charge their users fixed fees, irrespective of what content and how much content they are consuming on their platform. Biases inside echo chambers are less likely to be cemented on OCC platforms. Second is the element of consumer choice. On UGC platforms, users do not typically choose each individual post they want to view. Their news feeds and timelines estimate their preferences and then present that content to the user. With OCC platforms, the consumer proactively chooses a title they want to view. To better inform their decision, they have content synopsis, age ratings, and other descriptors at their disposal. The chances of you running into unwanted content are tremendously lower on an OCC platform compared to a UGC platform.
Pakistani regulators need to balance preserving Pakistan’s socio-cultural values and fostering a regulatory framework that allows our content producers and distributors to thrive. OCC services are expected to invest $10 billion in APAC by 2022. We have to make sure that we become the destination of choice for these investments. The magic of content export, unlike manufactured goods export is that in addition to providing a profit, they further your political cause at the global stage as well. Drinking cola will not make you an American. But their advertising content will surely attempt to instill American values in you.
The information revolution of the turn of the century promised to create informed global citizens with access to all the knowledge in the world. But instead, we have stepped into a new age of information competition. Farrell and Shalizi in their paper ‘Pursuing Cognitive Democracy’ suggest that they do not believe new media are the panacea for the problems of modern democracy. “Naive accounts of new media suggest that it empowers ordinary individuals against the strong. Instead, new technologies may serve to cement the advantages of large corporations and the state…. Our argument is not that new media leads to better democracy, but that proper democracy leads to better use of the potential of new media.” Pakistan needs to start the better use of new digital media if we truly want to deliver on our tremendous economic potential, and we need to start it yesterday!