October Issue 2015

By | Society | Published 4 years ago

Scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, as any millennial is wont to do, there are the usual posts: someone got engaged to someone, someone started a new job somewhere and then “15 things you know to be true if you have a younger sister.” I do have a younger sister and end up clicking on an article that will probably not add much to my knowledge but will give me a good laugh about sibling bonds.

It is the age of the listicle and Pakistan has caught on to the trend like wildfire. A listicle is a portmanteau of a list and an article; a series of bullet points that are centred round a theme. This Buzzfeedisation of the internet has resulted in gif laden “pieces” that are just fun to scroll through and for the internet obsessed youth of Pakistan, nothing seems to be better than posting links to their friends’ walls, captioning the post with something along the lines of “No.s 5, 10 and 11 are SO US.”

Newsline spoke to three editors of such websites and what goes on behind the scenes in creating them. Faiza Zafar of Parhlo.com started a blog where she would write poetry, prose and just about anything that was bothering her. But it wasn’t until a close friend confided in her of an incident of being harassed on the street that Zafar decided that something needed to be done. She wrote up her friend’s story and took it to a print publication who turned her down on account of the story not having any “spice.” Undettered, Yousuf published the account as a Facebook post where it started gaining attention. And soon people were opening up about their own stories of being harassed. But Zafar faced immense pressure from her family to take the post down. “Girls do not talk about such things,” they said, “Who will marry you?”

Though she caved in to pressure, Zafar decided that she could use her blog as a platform for young people to share their grievances. At the time, she was working at an investment company to make some money on the side. At a meeting, she mentioned that she wrote a blog to help young people break stereotypes and gained the interest of some venture capitalists who decided to turn her blog into a full-fledged website. Hence, Parhlo.comwas born.

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Boasting views in seven digit figures, Parhlo has a wide variety of articles all centred round the theme of breaking stereotypes. Some articles have titles that range from “8 kinds of reactions people have when they take their first joint,” to “Dear Pseudo Liberals, shut the eff up!” Most of them employ gifs and memes and sometimes, truly terrible grammar but in the rat race of trying to make the content as viral as possible, editorial discipline is often overlooked. Additionally, a section called “Global Changemakers” highlights young Pakistanis that are doing their bit to bring about change in society.

Another website that has a similar theme is WebChutney Pakistan. A project of the Express Media Group,WebChutney.pk runs articles like Parhlo: “11 times you would totally want to hit the dislike button.” Or “12 things only a desi girl who uses a lot of gaalis will understand.” Again, the memes and gifs are similar, they make one feel that they have just been reading The Daily Prophet, a newspaper from Harry Potter, with moving pictures (a staple in the wizarding world) — except instead of news, we have incomplete sentences.

Erum Shaikh, editor of WebChutney, spoke to Newsline about the “publisher’s brainchild.” When they started, Shaikh stated that WebChutney was the only website making listicles. And interestingly she believes that the Indian website ScoopWhoop, which also makes listicles and focuses on click-bait is bigger than Buzzfeed India – both of which are their inspiration.

“Everything is so Bollywood,” she says. “We should be celebrating Lollywood and our vibrant culture through these platforms.”

Shaikh is an ardent admirer of the Pakistani sense of humour, which is exactly what is needed in large doses to run websites like these. “We started with an investment of Rs. 0,” she says, “We wanted the whole set-up to be just content driven.”

Both Zafar and Shaikh echoed similar sentiments when it came to using humour to address problems in Pakistan. While Shaikh believes that identifying the problem is a huge milestone itself, Zafar says that these platforms should help to change the culture of complaint into one of finding solutions. Though Shaikh did not set out to try and break stereotypes, she found that is exactly what she ended up doing. “We wrote a piece on the struggles of wearing a hijab, and it was not about ‘the struggle,’ it was about everyday problems, like what do you do if you have just showered and want to be out the door in five minutes? These are struggles that everyone can relate to.”

Another humour site that has taken flight is Khabaristan Times, Pakistan’s own version of The Onion. FormerlyKhabiristan Today, which was under the print publication Pakistan Today, the website changed its name when it became independent in August 2014. “In those early days, people were not exactly sure what we were doing,” says Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, the main editor of the website. “Ironically, because news satire is usually taken literally, that is how our pieces gain traction.”

Shahid believes that one of the biggest misconceptions out there is that Pakistanis do not understand satire. “Satire has always been a part of Urdu literature and we have some great satirists, but it is news satire that makes it hard to figure out the real from the fake.”2The website published a piece on Mullah Omar calling for a military operation in the United States. What transpired was that other news organisations picked up the news because it sounded like yet another story of a maulana going crazy. The story was picked up by the Indian Express, Metro and the Daily Mail UK which just goes to show how misunderstanding satire is not just a Pakistani problem, but an issue the world over.

Shahid cites the ephemeral nature of the internet and the short attention spans of readers as other reasons for the misunderstanding. “Most readers don’t look beyond the headline and in a rat race for likes and retweets, end up sharing a piece of satire, positing it as the actual truth.

Still, the website has gone from a few hundred views in August 2014 to 100,000 views currently. It is not easy running a website that is geared toward humour and satire, as these people can tell you. The Buzzfeedisation of web culture in Pakistan may be in its fledgling stages but as Shaikh says, “It is here to stay.”

This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.