A few summers ago, my now 12-year-old daughter and her friends were obsessed with an app that let them make short music videos by lip syncing to popular songs. They would practise their moves for hours in front of mirrors and record their videos on phones perched on cupboards and bookshelves. Their accounts were private, and their followers were mainly fellow “musers" from their school or neighbourhood.
The curious thing about this app, called Musical.ly, was that not too many adults who didn’t have pre-teen or teenaged children had even heard of it, although it was wildly popular—over 200 million users worldwide.
Then, about a year ago, I noticed the kids weren’t at it, and for some time I thought it had gone the way of all childish obsessions, till my girl told me Musical.ly had morphed into a new app called TikTok and was “not nice anymore".
It was the kind of snobbery my English-speaking, Netflix-watching child had developed towards non-PLU types with the unconscious cruelty of the very young. But after sitting through a few hours of TikTok videos recently, I felt thankful she had gone off it. It didn’t seem like a safe space for a 12-year-old, even though I didn’t come across a single abusive/child pornography/suicide video—the ostensible reason new downloads of the app have recently been banned by the government, following which it was taken off Apple and Google app stores.
At the same time, it’s not wholesome content. Many of the videos in “Tiktok Top 20" lists are of young women dancing to film songs with exaggerated sexual movements and expressions, or young boys doing silly or mildly dangerous things. Some fall into the category of “what did I just see?", while the majority are more aggressively mediocre rather than outrageously awful.
TikTok content creators are stars in their own right today, says Samir Bangara, co-founder and managing director, Qyuki Digital Media, which works with creators to produce original digital content. “It is no longer tier-1 cities and metros that drive digital content. There has been a massive democratization of content with apps like TikTok, and it has helped some of these creators build amazing careers," says Bangara. He mentions top TikTok stars like Faisal Shaikh, Jannat Zubair and Aashika Bhatia, who have millions of followers each and are paid to attend events and performances. Bangara mentions how Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhat have been promoting their new film Kalank on TikTok— “it’s easier than travelling to 15 cities," he says. Bangara also mentions YouTube creators like Gajendra Verma from Sirsa, Haryana, whose original song Tera Ghata is a huge hit with 220 million views on YouTube alone.
Most TikTok videos are made by first-time content creators from small towns and villages, discovering the power of self-expression and peer validation for possibly the first time. They are giddy, they are happy, they believe they are awesome and unique. Video is their medium, and this platform allows them to be creative and make something beautiful, or even something ridiculous, as long as it leaves an impression. We don’t know them, but they don’t know us either, and they don’t want to. It is abundantly clear from their tone and references that they don’t aspire to our English-mediumness, our Game Of Thrones memes, our obsession with cats. If we don’t get them, they’re cool with it.
Banning TikTok is not the solution, says Bangara. First, the app has been taken off Google Play Store and the App Store, but what about the 120 million monthly active users who already have the app on their phones, and what about the others who will download it through APKs (android application packages, which lets users bypass official app stores), and what about similar apps like BIGO LIVE and Vigo Video that continue to be available? “The platform has to create a monitoring system and a quick-response mechanism that will take action against videos that promote violence or child pornography," says Bangara. Fine-tune the content ecosystem by all means, but banning it is not going to be very effective.
As one TikTok fan @mainbhiengineer cheekily said on Twitter, “Ban Bollywood instead, we’ve better quality actors and comedy on TikTok."