How TikTok’s ‘Cringe’ Empowered Indians More Than FB or Insta

With over 200 million users, TikTok considers India to be its largest international market.

Published01 Jul 2020, 01:08 PM IST
Hot Take
4 min read

On 29 June, the Government of India banned 59 Chinese apps, including one of India’s most popular video-sharing apps - TikTok. The “sheer suddenness of the move” left many Indians stunned...but not for the reasons some of us might think.

Following the announcement of the ban on Sunday evening, social media was flooded with reactions. Some questioned the intended optics behind the move, others mourned the loss of their favourite ‘cringe’ content creators. Despite all the tweeting, few understood what TikTok really stood for in India.

One of the most common ways to describe Indian TikTok content is to use the word ‘cringe.’

I’ve done it myself, I’ve heard people around me use that word, but in case you haven’t, a quick Google search for “Indian TikTok cringe” should suffice. So while calling TikTok content ‘cringe’ is not wrong (there’s cringe content on pretty much every social media platform), it’s the inherent class bias that seems to have seeped into conversations about the app.

On Sunday, many social media users began celebrating the ban on TikTok.

Malaika Arora’s Instagram
Malaika Arora’s Instagram
(Photo Courtesy: Instagram Screengrab)

It’s no secret that TikTok is dominated by semi-urban and rural India. With over 200 million users, TikTok considers India to be its largest international market. According to a data intelligence firm KalaGato, a majority of Tiktok users in India hail from tier 2 and tier 3 cities. Most of them are young, aged between 18 and 35. For them, TikTok is fun, it has allowed them to gain access to global social networks - but most importantly, it has made them feel seen. And if that’s the case, then who are we to look down on them?

TikTok’s Success

Objectively, there are two main factors that have contributed to the rise of TikTok in semi-urban and rural Indian communities: the rise of affordable smartphones and the availability of cheap mobile data, courtesy Reliance Jio. But TikTok’s popularity also stems from various social and cultural methods of gatekeeping that are absent from the platform.

For starters, TikTok has no language barrier. Unlike other platforms, one does not need to know English or any other language to be on the app. Secondly, literally anyone can become a TikTok content creator. All they need is a working smartphone and mobile data.

More than anything, TikTok challenged the superiority factor of other platforms like Facebook and Instagram. On TikTok, creativity and talent were the key players, and the concept of ‘aesthetic’ barely existed.

TikTok As a Tool of Empowerment

For Arman Rathod, a Gujarat-based car cleaner, TikTok has been his one-way ticket to unexpected stardom. TikTok allowed Rathod to actually pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a dancer and even bagged him an audition for the Color TV show Dance Deewane, reported Huffington Post.

Similarly, TikTok has done what no other platform could - provided marginalised communities with the opportunity to unapologetically be themselves.

Even for rural women, who generally do not enjoy the same privileges as men, TikTok was a breath of fresh air. For Savitri, who used to make Bollywood dance videos with her husband Sanatan, getting on TikTok came with a lot of risk and taboo but she did it anyway. With 2.7 million followers on the app, the duo is extremely disheartened by the ban.

Amidst the lockdown, TikTok had been providing a brief escape to many. In Shamli, Uttar Pradesh, Arti found herself struggling to go back to her home in Haryana after she lost her job as an assembly-line worker. As she struggled to survive during the day, she made TikTok videos at night - a temporary escape from the harsh reality of her life.

A salon-owning Maharashtra couple, Dinesh Pawar and his wife Lakhani, also shot to fame on TikTok during the lockdown.

The ban means that all their efforts to gain followers in the last few months have gone down the drain and they will have to start from scratch.

Of course, starting out on a new platform will be tough but not impossible. But for someone like Ratan Chouhan, who was famous for her videos made in regional dialects, TikTok was a source of income that she used to support her family.

In a country so deeply divided by income levels, social class, status, caste, gender, sex and more, TikTok emerged as the unifying factor.

All you needed was talent, some basic affordable equipment, and an ability to adapt and have fun. It was a universe of its own and this ban, if it continues, will definitely affect semi-urban and rural content creators - some of whom even benefitted financially from the app. Most TikTok creators are moving to YouTube and Instagram, and it might just work for them. But for those who wish to enter the world of content creation, TikTok was a great stepping stone and that’s not going to be there anymore.

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