If you spend enough time on social media, this will make sense: in the last few days, a 30-second video of an animated blue-faced man with dreadlocks, singing an Atif Aslam song the way we would all sing if no one was watching, has racked up more than 40,000 views.
Spend enough time on social media and you know I’m talking about Swinery. You will also know that describing a Swinery video to someone who hasn’t heard of Swinery ruins it.
‘Swinery’ is an anonymous Instagram account featuring short clips of animated characters including a judgmental auntie who dislikes her friend Shazia’s daughter, the kind of man who knows the precise point at which the hem of your shalwar should hit above your ankle, an alien who would like you to know that there is no gas, bijli or paani on Mars, and a foul-mouthed, bubblegum pink pig who wants everyone to stop saying ‘bacon strips,’ because he would never do something like that. See, I told you that describing the videos ruins them.
Swinery has been gaining followers so rapidly that Instagram, suspicious of the deluge, temporarily blocked its creator from posting new videos this week. Who are these viewers? Aside from a message in Swinery’s inbox from a young man named Khushal Yousafzai saying his sister Malala is a fan, viewers are no longer restricted to Instagram — Swinery’s videos are now forwarded on WhatsApp.
What’s so funny about an animated pig questioning why he’s haraam? It is funny in the way that any image, video or phrase becomes funny once it goes viral and becomes part of the shorthand of internet-speak, a language we’ve all learned well enough to play with (see: videos of Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman that have been used for chai memes, dubbed in Sindhi, and mined for uncle jokes with the punchline “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that.”). If you were at an Aurat March and saw women holding signs saying ‘I am Shazia’s daughter’, you know that Swinery is now part of our internet-speak.
Are the videos the internet’s equivalent of cotton candy — fun, leading to rot if consumed often — or do they have deeper meaning? And who exactly are the 22,000 plus of us watching?
Right now, Swinery is whoever you want it to be. If you know who they are, will that change how you feel about the videos? Are you having fun imagining that you and Swinery could be the best of friends?
On the internet, we determine what has meaning. We believe we know exactly who someone is based on one tweet, one photograph. We may be a muddle of our curated social media selves and our ‘real’ selves, but if you become famous enough for doing something online, your followers will quickly define which one is more true, more valuable than the other.
So who is Swinery? You decide.
OPTION A: SWINERY IS CONFUSED.
She is in her twenties, and all of this started when a friend of hers discovered they could use animoji — animated emoji that mirror your expressions and voice — on his new iPhone to record videos. “The pig was the first animoji we saw and we hit ‘record’ and I said the first thing that came out of my mouth,” she says. It was fun, and they decided that for as long as it remained fun, she would make an Instagram account and create videos for their friends to enjoy. ‘Swinery’ made the most sense for an account name as the pig video was the first one.
Since she didn’t own an iPhone, she only made videos when she hung out with her friend — that’s why you can hear laughter in the background of her early videos. She started doing pretend product reviews with the same voices and accents because when she got bored, she could film those on her own phone at home. She would only post when she felt like it — sometimes, weeks would pass without a new video.
She got an iPhone two months ago and is posting more frequently because she’s got some free time since she quit her job at a college in Karachi. She’ll wake up and, if she feels like it, she’ll open up the app and play around with the characters. Usually, she just keeps talking and if something funny comes out, she’ll post it.
The day I meet her, she posted two videos of the dreadlocked blue man. She doesn’t store videos or plan them. Some influencers time their posts to maximise viewing, but she really doesn’t care if only five people see the video. She’ll post however many videos while a joke is still fresh in her mind. Sometimes, she’ll forget to hit ‘record’ when she’s making a video. She won’t try to redo those jokes.
Some friends say she’s not being clever about managing the attention she’s getting, but here’s the thing — she’s using Swinery like it’s a personal account. Someone told her the Atif Aslam parody has more than 37,000 views right now and that’s just insane. She herself doesn’t keep track of the numbers and chase them. To be honest, it felt crazy when that video had even 1,000 views, she says. Before she uploaded it, she showed it to some friends, and someone said she might get into trouble for it. She uploaded it anyway. Sometimes she thinks she preferred it when Swinery was like a cult with a small following of 200 or 300 people. There was less room for misunderstanding then.
The other day, a friend told her she could check out her ‘insights’ on the account and she suddenly realised she could see which videos we love the most, which cities viewers are from, and so much other stuff she still hasn’t fully worked out. People love the auntie with her sour remarks about her friend Shazia’s daughter. The aim with posting more of the auntie’s videos is not to get more followers. “I hope that some auntie will watch this video and think, ‘Yo, that’s me. That’s how I sound when I talk about somebody,’” she says. It might be good to remind these aunties how unkind they can be.
The thing that’s really fun is that she never knows what is going to come out of her mouth. It’s almost like a trick her brain plays. One day, doing a video for the blue man, a character who asks you to enunciate the ‘qaaf’ — really summon it up from the back of your throat like you’re retching — for ‘qeema’ and ‘qainchi’, she said the word ‘darkhwast,’ a word she had never used before. If you hear her laugh during a video, it’s because she’s surprised herself. But to be honest, the fact that she’s even doing Swinery is a surprise.
“They imagine I’m this bundle of joy, always cracking a joke. They don’t really know what’s going on in my life beyond the 30-second video. They don’t want me to be their friend — they want me to perform for them,” she says.
You see, the thing that is her great love, the thing that made her feel less lost, less directionless, is standup comedy. She hasn’t performed for a while though. The material just isn’t coming. The only way she can try to understand Swinery’s success is to imagine a room of 22,000 people watching her do standup comedy. And that’s just insane. Sometimes she thinks that if she planned out Swinery videos the way she planned out and wrote her stand-up material, she might one day also lose Swinery. What if the ideas stop coming? If she opened up her phone and had nothing to say?
She knows people want her to reveal herself. But she doesn’t want them to say, “Of course, that’s what the funny girl looks like.” She doesn’t need people thinking of her as the funny, chubby girl.
Some fans say they’re going to make sure she hits 100,000 or 200,000 followers. They love her. Sometimes she wants to tell them that the high of making a room full of people laugh is better than 1,000 new followers. On some days, she gets messages from followers saying they had a difficult time getting out of bed and the only thing that helped was watching her videos.
“I wonder why I feel sad about not doing stand-up when there are people taking comfort in this thing I’m doing.” She gets many, many messages from people who wish they were her friend. Women love that she is irreverent, that she publicly talks the way that they only talk amongst friends. “They imagine I’m this bundle of joy, always cracking a joke,” she says. “They don’t really know what’s going on in my life beyond the 30-second video. They don’t want me to be their friend — they want me to perform for them.”
She no longer needs to do pretend product reviews — companies have reached out and she can ask for money to do a shout-out. But all of this feels like a fluke, like she just got lucky. What she loves to do — to make people laugh — is so intangible. It can be there one minute and forgotten in the next.
What is the value of something like that? Even the thousands of followers are so intangible, just numbers on a screen. Why would someone pay her to do these videos? To be honest, she was nervous about being interviewed because she thought she would be an obvious disappointment to meet in real life. And why would someone want to interview her anyway?
OPTION B: SWINERY KNOWS EXACTLY WHAT WE WANT
She’s in her twenties and people are now finally getting to see what she’s been doing since she was a child: her parents would ask her to do impersonations and accents for guests. During recess at school, kids would watch her do impressions of teachers, especially of her Math teacher. She was so good at it that kids at other schools knew about her. If she would get bored at the college she worked at, she would sometimes call people and do random voices and make up characters, sometimes pretending to sell something.
The animoji app on her friend’s iPhone was the perfect way to channel that talent on to social media. When she had to name the account, she thought about a friend’s nickname for her and how her mother loves to collect piggy banks, and went with Swinery because it was nonsensical enough.
“Doing the videos of the judgmental auntie is so therapeutic. Who hasn’t encountered an auntie making unnecessary comments about your weight or giving you a look because your jeans are too skinny? The videos allow girls like me to poke fun at the aunties in our lives, to get to judge them.”
The plan was always to act — she did a well-received play outside Pakistan recently — and to do stand-up, but Swinery has given her some relief from the pressures of both. “It’s a lot harder to craft a sketch for stand-up, and its scary because, in the moment, the audience either laughs or they don’t,” she explains.
“With Swinery, I don’t know how the person on the other side of the screen is reacting and it feels a lot safer. If a video doesn’t do well, that’s fine — I just do another one.” More importantly, she can’t do stand-up shows every day. But that incredible high you get from performing is rationed out; with each Swinery video, she gets a quick little shot of that high with every ‘like.’ It’s easy. The only fear is that the ‘likes’ may dwindle. The Atif Aslam video has more than 40,000 views. If a video she posts tomorrow got only 2,000 views, she would worry about what she did wrong.
The insights that Instagram gives her help. The two most loved characters are the judgmental auntie and the dreadlocked blue man. She has stopped making videos with other characters: the panda, the dragon, the dog. With each new follower, she hones her message.
“Doing the videos of the judgmental auntie is so therapeutic,” she explains. “Who hasn’t encountered an auntie making unnecessary comments about your weight or giving you a look because your jeans are too skinny? We’ve never been able to talk back to these aunties. The videos allow girls like me to poke fun at the aunties in our lives, to get to judge them.” The auntie has been such a hit, she’s noticed a rash of copycat accounts.
She knows people want her to reveal herself. But Swinery would lose its fun factor then — the guessing gets more people talking about her and more followers — and anyway, she’s got some other ideas in the pipeline where she will show her face so she can’t let Swinery affect that. Besides, she doesn’t want followers to think, “She’s really cute, so of course she has the confidence to be funny like this.”
She’s finally reaching the point where she can monetise Swinery. One man got in touch with her because his wife is obsessed with Swinery and he wants to commission a custom message for their anniversary. She realised she really undercharged for an event she did a shout-out for when at least 300 people showed up for it.
If she did a shout-out for the café she’s sitting in right now and 300 people showed up, imagine how crazy that would be. That kind of reach is worth something.
Sanam Maher is the author of 'The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch'
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, March 17th, 2019