On paper, TikTok is just a mobile app that allows users to share short videos, but in reality, it’s a stage for teenagers from all over the world to compete for attention, for stardom, and, as is happening in India right now, for a completely different life.
While social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter revolve around adding friends and getting followers, TikTok is about winning fans over. It leads its users into believing that they have a shot at global recognition regardless of where they’re from, so long as they can go online and capture people’s attention for a short period of time lasting anywhere between 15 seconds and a minute. This is integrated into the app’s AI-driven interface: It shows users content they did not ask for, coming from people they’ve probably never met, opening up seemingly random opportunities.
The influence of this promise is most prominently seen in India. TikTok is the mobile app with the most downloads in the South Asian nation at the moment with a user count of over 200 million, and it’s creating a new phenomenon that sees millions of youths—in metropolis and suburban areas alike—trying to become the next big name on TikTok. The outcomes are at the same time magical and nightmarish.
What’s popular on TikTok varies from region to region: Cheerleading videos are preferred in the US, whereas in India it’s English lessons that take the spotlight. However, the monetization pattern is the same, from YouTube channels to movie roles and brand endorsements. One of the most prominent TikTok celebrities in the United States is Loren Gray, a 17-year-old who has garnered 35 million followers by posting clips of herself lip-synching to popular songs. Now, Grey has become a pop star in her own right with album deals with Capitol Records and Virgin Records. Meanwhile in China, where the app goes under the name Douyin, Liu Qikun, who is not even 20 years old yet, has 10 million followers tuning in to watch his comedy clips. He earns income by promoting Alibaba, a leading e-commerce firm in the country.
Indians rank high on practically every list of the top TikTok celebrities, and for good reasons. Over 50% of the country’s population is younger than 25, and half a billion people have access to the internet these days thanks to the increasing popularity of affordable smartphones and mobile data plans. However, not all of them can express their opinions via well-written tweets or Instagram captions. In fact, a big portion of India’s first-time internet users—some of whom are illiterate while others only speak in local dialects—have an easier time using video-based platforms. Between 2012 and 2018, the amount of time an average Indian spend watching videos online every day increased from 2 minutes to a whopping 52 minutes, according to statistics provided by the media agency Zenith.
For the moment, YouTube still has more users in India than TikTok (265 million), but from a certain point of view, the latter has more potential. It supports fifteen different Indian languages, allowing each of the country’s regions to have its own market, trends, and stars.
For Indians, TikTok is a hobby to pass time or a creative outlet, but more and more people are also starting to see it as a viable career path, one that could lead to huge financial successes.
Ratan Chouhan found out about TikTok in 2017 and soon started posting clips of herself dancing to songs in the Haryanvi language and rapping verses that she wrote herself. Today, the 21-year-old has amassed 2.5 million followers on TikTok.
Chouhan’s newfound fame is not just about satisfying fan’s selfie requests whenever she goes out. It’s also how she provides for her family. Her father has been unemployed for 8 years, her mother also doesn’t work, and her brother is attending university. With income from promotional videos and celebrity appearances, Chouhan can support them all.
And even those with a few thousand followers can still earn a decent amount of money from the app. Small music labels often reach out to mid-level TikTokers and pay them for lip-synching to their songs in order to reach a new audience. Alternatively, they can use their TikTok popularity as leverage to eventually switch to other platforms like Instagram, where individual posts can bring them more money. A TikToker-goes-Instagram-influencer can earn 1,700 rupees with just one single photo. In certain parts of India, this can make for a decent source of income as statistics from the 2017-2018 period show that 45% of full-time workers there make less than 10,000 rupees a month, and the legal minimum wage is just 18,000 rupees a month.
Of course, as they gain more followers, there will be more opportunities to make profits. Big TikTokers can earn income by appearing at public events, where people can pay as much as 5,000 rupees have the chance to see them up close. Or they can promote Bollywood movies. That’s right: The big-budget Bollywood movies are being advertised by TikTok stars.
Despite the potentials that TikTok promises, however, it has also had many adverse effects on the Indian society. Many youngsters have gone to extremes because of this, going so far as to steal iPhones or pose with loaded firearms. There have been several reported cases of Indians killing themselves when their family stops them from creating videos to share on TikTok, and the platform is also an environment for cyberbullies to thrive.
Over the course of 2019, TikTok has found itself caught in the middle of a myriad of conflicts in India as well. Videos of high-caste people saying they want to get rid of lower-caste Dalit communities are not a rare sight. In July 2019, TikTok banned 3 popular content creators – all of whom were Muslim – for publishing clips in which they condemned a Hindu mob for lynching a Muslim man. In April of the same year, the app was briefly banned from the app stores following a petition saying that it could be harmful to children. The ban was lifted after a few weeks, however.