Selfie Stream

“No Heart No Power” peered into her smartphone and scratched her chin.

“Who will buy me an iPhone7?” the young woman, dressed in a white tunic, asked a digital audience of 277 on Bigo Live, a new livestreaming app, on a recent afternoon. “Who? Who?”


“I’ll spend for you,” a viewer named Sak Saly wrote in the group chat floating across the screen.

“Show me your breasts please,” another wrote.

“Do you wear trousers?” asked a third.

“Which one of your eyes saw me not wearing trousers?” the young woman replied, as other women shuffled around the blurry backdrop of a shophouse.

A quick right swipe, and the broadcast was replaced by a smiling, short-haired transgender woman calling herself Monkey, who was hanging out with friends in a park.

“How much can I pay to be engaged to you?” asked Chann Pailin, who had joined the group chat. “After we are married, if you don’t give me milk, you have to pay me back the money I spent.”

“You are beautiful,” Ryna Kae Klung wrote.

“How beautiful am I?” Monkey asked in response, adding, “I’m gay.”

Boredom, self-expression, hormones and harassment have a new home on Bigo Live. Launched in March, it already has 35 million users—nearly 1 million of them in Cambodia, according to the company’s statistics.

Stella Shin, who manages media relations for the Singapore-based Bigo Live, touts the personal nature of the app, which is especially popular among Southeast Asian youth.

“Our mission is to help people [become] overwhelmed with happiness and build connections through real-interaction livestreaming,” Ms. Shin said.

Like Facebook Live, Snapchat, Periscope and other live video streaming competitors, Bigo offers a setup that presents opportunities for flattery, validation, bullying and abuse.

Presenters share their lives—their video games, songs, dinner dates, dance moves and homework-in-bed sessions—to onlookers who shower them with digital gifts, praise and, sometimes, scorn.

Users chat directly with presenters one-on-one or in group sessions, and the most successful and popular presenters (usually young, female and often scantily clad) can trade the affection, bestowed as digital candy and flowers, for actual cash.

The app’s interface has a clutter to rival cable news, with the ongoing chat sessions, gift announcements and the omnipresent floating hearts (or with a recent Halloween update, donuts) that users can buy and send by tapping the trademark white Bigo dinosaur.

For a 27-year-old Phnom Penh dentist, who preferred to be identified by his Bigo name “Gaara,” the app’s appeal is obvious: It’s fun.

“Sometimes I’m eating, sometimes talking to random people and some [friends] of mine on Bigo…. Sometimes I play music or sing,” he wrote in a Facebook message.

Gaara enjoys broadcasting his life, but likes to sit at a certain remove from his fans.

“I do chat with them, but I never meet random people from Bigo,” he said.

Ma Nann, a 24-year-old cosmetics saleswoman, said she enjoys the app’s facial software that softens blemishes and lightens skin tones as well as the app’s anonymous flattery, which she finds therapeutic.

“Mostly the people who chat with me want to flirt and get my contact information,” she said. “When I play Bigo to cut my stress or because I’m bored, I feel better.”

Daniel McFarland, a social anthropologist at Thammasat University in Bangkok who studies new media in the region, said Cambodians have interacted anonymously for years by deliberately calling wrong numbers to meet strangers. So Bigo is just a new, convenient way to satisfy the same desires.

“I think wrong number calling, friending strangers on Facebook or broadcasting your life on Bigo are mediums for the youth to reimagine and reconfigure their connections with the world and their social identity,” he wrote in an email.

Bigo’s appeal maps to a global trend: a generation of young people comfortable sharing their personal lives through social media who have shown themselves capable of amassing scrappy internet star power, Mr. McFarland said.

“As a result, the owners of mainstream media and marketing agencies (and regulatory authorities) are losing control of content and the look and form of celebrity,” he said. “Celebrity culture is relatively new in Cambodia, but it could already be being revolutionized by social media platforms like Bigo.”

Not everyone appreciates the kinds of attention that come with Bigo popularity, even those courting the social media limelight.

“Facebook Live is a better option because many of my friends can reply with fun comments,” said Keo Kanika, a 20-year-old aspiring model. “Bigo Live is messy and people say crazy things in chat.”

Every time they enter a chat, users are greeted by reminders to obey community guidelines against explicit material and abusive comments, and the company says it monitors streams and bans offenders. Yet bullying persists, some experts say.

Lianna Pisani, a Canadian researcher and communications consultant who has studied women’s use of selfies, said she thought the bullying women faced on Bigo Live was similar to that which they encountered elsewhere on social media.

“There is the common narrative in many media outlets stating that these self-performances make a person narcissistic, which is an unfounded claim based on the concept of cultural narcissism, which gained popularity as a means of dismissing women in the 1970s,” she wrote in an email. “There are many accounts of women being harassed online as well.”

“Women should be able to actively and freely participate and engage with social media platforms like Bigo Live, for whatever the reason may be,” she added.

Some advertisements for the app suggest female Bigo broadcasters show up to meet men. One video ad posted from the verified Bigo Live Facebook page shows a brassy-haired Asian woman wearing form-fitting white lingerie, sashaying from side to side.

“Want to try something new? Beautiful girls are waiting to chat with you,” the ad’s text says in Khmer.

A different ad, also originating from the app’s Facebook page, shows a compilation of female selfies. “Which girl you like? Come and have some fun with them,” the caption says.

Bigo’s Ms. Shen claims that the women in the ads were not Bigo users and had not been sanctioned by the company. But the ads speak to Bigo’s draw, especially among young men.

“There are some third-party advertisers pretending to be Bigo Live official to draw traffic,” she wrote, later clarifying that the advertisers were “authorized by Bigo Live,” but occasionally made ads that “abuse…that authorization.”

Authorized or not, the messaging doesn’t seem to be scaring away what Ms. Shen estimates is more than 950,000 Cambodian users. Traditional broadcasters from radio and television have even embraced the app, and former television talk show host Ek Socheata is one of the most popular users.

Ms. Socheata, better known as Sasa, made headlines last year after footage emerged of her being brutally beaten by real estate magnate Sok Bun in a case that landed the tycoon a 10-month jail sentence, which was slammed by rights activists as too lenient.

But on a recent Tuesday afternoon on Bigo Live, Ms. Socheata was mostly concerned with finding a good place to eat and fixing her eyeliner.

“What happened with your eyes?” asked a viewer, Yana.

“I cannot see clearly on one side,” she replied, in a reference to the damage done by Mr. Bun.

“I hate him,” Yana wrote. Sasa replied: “I hope he goes to hell.”

“We all love you,” Yana responded. A gathering storm of gifted donuts suggested many of her 500 viewers concurred.

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