Born in 2016, TikTok is a short video platform that allows users to shoot, edit, publish, and share 15-second videos. As of April 2020, the platform was home to approximately 800 million active users worldwide. In 2019 TikTok averaged 119 million active users in India. The reach that TikTok has is unparalleled. It recently became the fourth most downloaded app on the iPhone, after YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat, beating Facebook, Messenger, Gmail, and NetFlix in the process.
When these numbers are combined with Google Play, it is the second most downloaded app in 2019 after only WhatsApp. According to data from Apptrace, TikTok is available in 141 countries, in 39 languages, and is ranked top 25 in 131 of them. Surpassing the 2 billion download mark just five months after hitting the 1.5 billion target, TikTok became the most downloaded app in a single quarter. Of these 2 billion, India accounts for more than 600 million downloads (approximately 30% of all unique installations).
A small glimpse at these numbers and the platform’s reach is unquestionable.
A study conducted by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI) and Nielsen shows that rural India has 229 million active internet users compared to urban India’s 205 million as of November 2019.
This is attributed primarily to the wave of affordable handsets sweeping the market and the initially cheap data plans offered by Jio. Several Indians own a smartphone and are connected to the internet; for TikTok, that is all you need.
TikTok has changed the traditional production model of popular culture. One can shoot, edit, publish, share, and view user-generated content in one single app. All this app needs is a working smartphone connected to the internet and boom; you’re set to create and upload your videos.
Another reason behind the rise of TikTok is the integration with multiple platforms. Users can directly share their videos on different apps like WhatsApp.
It is an app that does it all and the simplicity of the platform is what makes it more accessible and appealing. It doesn’t require one to be in glamourous clothes and create aesthetically appealing posts like Instagram; what TikTok relies on is the aesthetic of authenticity. Most of the viral videos on this platform have been shot in peoples’ homes, farms, terraces, and therein lies its appeal.
Tiktok doesn’t make Indians with the lack of resources feel left out. It empowers them. It gives them a medium to generate their art and express themselves. While primarily an entertainment platform, TikTok is also witnessing an increasing rate of political content and social commentary. What makes this content unique is that it is not an ivory tower liberal or champagne socialist publishing this content. Instead, the people who give powerful insight, first-hand accounts, and have lived experiences.
Even the content meant for entertainment does not fail to serve its intended purpose. Israil Ansari, a famous TikTok artist, now promotes homeware companies and Chinese food trucks. This was not always the case. Ansari used to work as a handyman in a hardware store in Mumbai not long ago and didn’t even own a cellphone. When his brother sent him one, and he downloaded TikTok, everything changed.
With minimal barriers to entry and a scale of audience unrivalled by any platform, TikTok has become a haven for people seeking to create their content. You don’t need fancy gadgets and video editing skills to create a video, which is a requirement if you want to be popular on YouTube. All you need is the ability to grab hold of people’s attention for 15 seconds.
Tiktok uses the shortening attention span of human society to its advantage, and the economically and socially oppressed have mastered that art with TikTok. The majority of the content on TikTok India comes from semi-urban and rural audiences or people who are not financially well off. The videos are raw, gaudy, authentic and loved. Something YouTubers and Instagram users couldn’t achieve with their access to resources, TikTok users have.
Content producers are not limited to the urban elite, oppressed castes and classes are producing a massive amount of content with apps like TikTok. They may not have chiselled bodies, fancy clothes, and glamorous backgrounds, but they make up for it with the realness in their content. They have shown that, if made accessible, they can use technology and create art that is equally, if not more, gripping as professionally curated content.
All is not pretty for the content creators, though. Tiktok gets a lot of hate, and so do the people creating content on this platform. A popular Indian YouTuber, Carry Minati, had made a roast of TikTok, which soon became the most liked video on Youtube India.
The content was abusive, but the focus remained on Carry. The part of the video that deserved more attention was the number of likes and the trending tweets on twitter.
People seem to hate TikTok primarily because it is inclusive. It challenges the monopoly of the urban class on user-generated content and, to an extent, even breaks it. TikTok users are mainly from the relegated sections of society.
Those that did not have monetary backing and those that were not deemed worthy of content creation. Their only crime has been that they dared to create art and express themselves. Show the world the face of real India and challenge the metropolitan cartel of content.
It is not an upper-caste exclusive space but rather one where the marginalised let their creative juices flow and are appreciated by the audiences. When a rural couple dances to popular Bollywood songs and uploads the video on TikTok, they are ridiculed. Ridiculed because they do not have the perfect bodies, they are perhaps not of a fairer complexion but largely because they are subalterns.
They do not come from ivory towers and do not have upper-caste surnames to their credit. They break the hegemony of elite representation in the business of entertainment, from upper-caste cultural identity to societal norms of beauty, they successfully challenge these notions. Though, the biggest threat that these TikTok users pose to the established structures is perhaps their potential to move up the ladder and not confine themselves to the roles that the ruling class defined for them.
Even when the urban elite views TikTok videos, they are viewed from a lens of prejudice. One which is waiting to laugh at the content, at the creators, not because the content is funny but because they like to ridicule the place where the creator comes from. As Suraj Yengde puts it in his article, for years, the subaltern has been invisibilized in mainstream media; the folk songs are nowhere to be found, the rituals are not represented, their Gods have been demonized.
So it’s no surprise that when they rise against the casteist and classist society of India and kick down doors which are meant to be barricaded for their entry, they are laughed at. It is in this laughter that we will find power. We will use this laughter to reclaim our rightful place as authentic artists of the Indian nation.