In December 2006, Time magazine “You” as the person of the year. This was supposed to be a recognition of sorts for the advent of user-generated content on the internet.
In the write-up justifying the choice, Lev Grossman, Times’s lead technology writer at the time, said: “This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding...citizen to citizen, person to person.”
Fourteen years later, it’s clear that Grossman discounted historical possibilities. In some ways, India’s ban on the hugely popular Chinese short video-sharing app, TikTok, along with 58 other Chinese apps, shows that the interests of the nation-state continue to be a key arbiter of such understanding. Like his contemporary Thomas Friendman’s idea of the “flat world” — and much earlier, Francis Fukuyama’s false proclamation of “defanged nationalism”, and Kenichi Ohmae’s naïve roadmap of a “borderless world” — Grossman jumped the gun.
While probing this misreading is an important task, TikTok’s short social career in India is something of more immediate interest.
With over 120 million active users in India, TikTok had the scale of a social theatre. But there was something more important to it. To begin with, TikTok found appeal in India as a form of desperate revenge of the underclass against the unfair ways of fame and fortune. It drifted, however, to become something else: stuck in its formulaic system, anxieties and crude excesses.
But that’s only a part of its story in India. A lazy — and rather inadequate — way to look at its popularity is by seeing it as an example of Warhol’s prediction of “15 minutes of fame” for all. Yet that’s still a dramatic statement. Fame for all is no fame at all. TikTok couldn’t have thrived merely on the prospect of democratising small-time popularity.
For instance, it was interesting to look at the app’s huge user base in an economically-poor state like Bihar. The app coincided with the availability of cheap mobile data, especially after the advent of Jio data plans. In numbers, the popularity of TikTok in Bihar can be gauged from the fact that in 2019, an estimated 10 percent of its users in India were from Bihar alone.
As if that wasn’t enough, Bihar even hosted a national TikTok festival on August 25 last year. Had it not been for the ban, the 12 million TikTok users in Bihar would have even forced political parties and candidates in the forthcoming Assembly election to make the app a part of their poll campaign plans.
How did people in the state look at it?
The average profile of TikTok video-sharers, who comprise only a part of their user base, is teenage to late 20s. The upper limit of this age group is believed to have recently increased, especially during the lockdown. What explains the sway the app had over the adolescents and the young in rural and urban Bihar? It can't be the only antidote to boredom in the leisurely hinterland, where the restless stare at long hours every day. Generations of youths have beaten that without staring at or posing for their mobile phones.
It’s important to remember that a large number of popular TikTok stars in Bihar either had anonymous handles, or multiple handles with fictitious names. If one assumed that all were targeting fame, how did anonymity help? Perhaps it had to do with the nature of the song-and-dialogue lip-syncing videos that are staple content on TikTok. Most popular lip-syncing “sounds” that were attempted had raunchy themes. The sexually-laced nature of the audio might make it tantalising to live the life of a 15-second video, but it’s also socially risky.
In addition to popular Bollywood numbers, the more popular TikTok stars in Bihar grooved to sexually explicit numbers in regional dialects like Bhojpuri. Given this instant formula to add followers and likes, the bar for a video to go viral was low — and quite tempting.
With templates set for the flow of followers, young girls and women on TikTok were major traffic-drivers. Though a large number of users were only around as viewers seeking voyeuristic thrills, the social opinion of TikTok stars was quite low. Many popular female TikTok stars — girls as well as married women — revealed that their followers doubted whether they actually had families in real life. Many followers even asked them to stop doing such videos, and wondered why family members weren’t stopping them.
Street conversations in the state have often speculated about the identities of such “nachaniya” (a derogatory word for dancers). While a few were identifiably dancers working in orchestras, the “homely” looks and claims of many TikTok stars seemed to befuddle the average TikTok viewer in Bihar — the user who never uploaded a video but spent hours consuming content.
This user was easily shocked; the type whom you’d spot too (which is how “orchestra” is spelt when it can’t handle the oomph). Amid the cheering arkestra crowd, you’d often come across the incongruous sight of very serious-looking men, who looked like they’re trying to find the arithmetic mean between public decency and raunchy collectivity. Lurking in the background, or trying to look invisible in the front rows, they struggled between what they were there for, and how they shouldn’t be seen there. They generally looked stunned.
Besides the titillation, TikTok also found many takers in the state because the quick repartee and almost lyrical trolling in regional pop numbers fit well within the 15-second package. Even TikTok stars who were not from the state recognised it, and made videos to such songs and dialogues. This, of course, was also motivated by keeping their followers in Bihar in good humour.
While there are numerous examples of such musical trolling and repartee, a recent hit with TikTok users endorsed the swag of paan masala Rajnigandha (with tulsi) in a way that even its sponsorship of the Times Lit Fest couldn’t achieve. In a Kheshari-Antara duet, which used Bhojpuri punctuated by Patnaniya Hindi, the woman pushed her suitor, saying, “Laagata peeke aale baara das paua, Arre muh mahak raha hai hatiye.” Loosely translated: “Seems you have taken cheap liquor. Stay away, it’s giving a bad smell.”
Pat came the reply, with appropriate swagger: “Rajnigandha aur tulsi khaye hain na rre, Gori tori chunri hain jhalkua, jaan mare lehenga Lucknauwa (I have taken Rajnigandha and tulsi, your scarf is transparent and your lehenga of Lucknow is a killer).” Convinced, the woman smiled and resumed dancing.
When the internet age arrived in India in the early 21st century, ubiquitous cyber cafes silently played a different role. Their corner cabins were not for a breathtaking exchange of information, but for pulsating erotic chats guised as romance. To some extent, the 15-second TikTok videos ended up doing just that. With its ban, the state is waiting to rehabilitate its short video stars to a new platform. And this will happen sooner than people expect.
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