The following article was written by an Iranian citizen journalist on the ground inside the country, who writes under a pseudonym to protect her identity.
The arrest of Sahar Tabar, an alias for a young woman named Fatemeh Khishvandi, has once again made Instagram and Instagram celebrities and influencers — colloquially called “Instagram horns” in Iran — into a hot topic for debate in the country.
It has also reminded the public of the huge financial benefits some Instagram celebrities can generate on the platform. Instagram users with hundreds of thousands of followers or more have provided businesses with a golden opportunity to sell their goods.
In recent years, with the spread of the internet, apps and mobile phones across Iran, and the increasing role played by social media in the everyday lives of people, a range of services and commodities, especially in big cities like the capital Tehran, have become more varied and available. So online platforms have created an opportunity for making more money — from selling snacks and cigarettes to peddling cars and jewelry, and for general advertising for bigger companies.
With the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) losing viewers every day for a range of reasons, businesses are changing how they spend their big advertisement budgets and have moved away from the state-run TV toward mobile phones. In February this year, Mashregh News, dismissively referring to these influencers as “virtual dancers and jugglers,” claimed that so-called professional Instagrammers made thousands of dollars per month from advertisements, and that each Instagram ad costs between five and 15 million tomans ($US 430-1300).
The Monetary Value of Lip-Synching
Sasha is 26 and lives in Tehran’s Ekbatan neighborhood. He has an associate degree in graphic arts and refers to himself as an Instagram influencer. “Three years ago, just for fun, three of my friends and I lip-synched a dialogue by Bahman Mofid in the movie Gheisar [a 1969 landmark Iranian film],” he says. “I had practiced a lot and the pauses were exactly in the right places. Anyhow, it turned out to be very good and this clip was so successful and was viewed so many times that within 48 hours my followers jumped from 300 to 14,000. I liked the attention and started making video clips.”
Today social media is not only about attention, it has also turned into an advertisement hub. The more an influencer has visitors, followers and “likes,” the more commercial enterprises are willing to spend money on them for advertisement.
“I continued my work but I also paid attention to what kind of postings have more viewers and what hours of the day are better for publishing them,” Sasha says. “Now I am an Instagram influencer with 2.8 million followers.” He says that this number of followers is enough for him to make an average of four million tomans ($350) for each ad. “There is an algorithm to Instagram and if anyone heeds it he can have 10 times as many followers, even if his postings are nothing out of the ordinary.”
Some Instagram celebrities hand over the management of their pages to a professional administrator and make somewhere from 50 to 500 million tomans ($4,300-43,000) per month through ads. “I am not saying that I have not been successful but this business has the potential [for me] to make 100 million tomans [$8,600) per month," Sasha says. "I have not yet reached 50 million tomans [$4,300] per year.”
“Do you know Ali Saburi?” he asks me. “The same guy who did standup comedy on Khandevaneh [an Iranian comedy television series] and, as it happens, was not liked by many. Now all his income comes from Instagram. For each of his postings he gets five million tomans [$430] and each day he posts at least four stories on Instagram. This makes him 20 million tomans [$1,700] per day. Can you believe that is how he has bought himself a Mercedes C200?”
How the Playing Field has Changed
Instagram has created its own sector or industry, taking the power out of the hands of conventional celebrities. In the past, the social media profiles or pages of famous people — whether because of success in arts, government or other areas — attracted viewers and followers. But now it’s possible for ordinary people to go onto Instagram and enjoy success and fame. “There are no rules,” Sasha says. He mentions Vahid Khazaei and Donya Jahanbakht, two Iranian internet celebrities, expressing wonder about it has even been possible for them to become so famous. “At least Donya Jahanbakht [a model] is attractive to some men,” he says.“I have no idea what Vahid Khazaei has done to get here.”
“Social media and, especially these days, Instagram, need content, but the quality of this content depends completely on taste,” a social media expert tells IranWire. “If you come across individuals who have followers in the millions but offer nothing more than sexual attraction, sexual jokes or obscene jokes, it can only mean that this kind of content appeals to many people in our society. At the opposite extreme, we can see that the Instagram page of a poet with two poetry collections does not have even 2,000 followers.”
Sasha gives further examples of surprising Instagram hits, citing “a woman with a clownish tone and a few cliché jokes who wishes people happy birthday. The first time it trended because of her funny voice and many watched it. But now she stands in front of her mobile phone a few times a day and wishes people happy birthday. There is no creativity there but she gets 200,000 tomans [$18] for each appearance just because of her manner of speaking.”
The expert I spoke to said it was difficult to pin down how people build audiences.“The topics of the algorithm and the timing of the posting are quite valid,” the expert says, “but it is not everything. To be honest, we really do not know what makes a post or page trend. As specialists, we are naturally aware of Instagram’s algorithm. There is even a company that studies how Instagram pages for businesses and services can and do attract followers, but we have yet to arrive at a formula to explain how somebody suddenly becomes an Instagram influencer in less than a week.”
But Sasha has a slightly different take on it. “To be honest,” he says, “Even if somebody knows how to become an Instagram celebrity overnight, he will not tell that secret to anybody else. The environment is utterly competitive and nobody shows mercy to anybody else. The competition is not only among us, the so-called influencers. There are many actors and sportsmen and sportswomen who are obsessed with Instagram. We often hear that this actor or that sportsman will be appearing somewhere on a certain night just so he can boost the number of his followers.”
Maryam Khosravani, IranWire Citizen Journalist, Karaj
The Arrest of Iran’s Instagram “Zombie Star”, October 8, 2019