A lot of mainstream writing about TikTok on news and related websites, even now, revolves around trying to explain the phenomenon and the app to non-users. It has suddenly become a talking point ever since India banned 59 Chinese apps on June 29.
However, except for when the occasional TikTok video/meme/joke/challenge finds its way into Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines, a large part of what has become the online ‘public sphere’ would appear to be almost completely unaware of the phenomenon that is TikTok.
One of the important reasons for this is that TikTok isn’t a platform for communication. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, the focus of the app, and indeed its users, has been on content, and not communication. This is an important distinction, putting TikTok more in the same space as YouTube, rather than Twitter or Facebook.
Then again, unlike YouTube, TikTok is about small quick videos, easy editing, filters, and fun challenges that capture the attention of teenagers and older millennials alike. It brings the familiar, algorithmically-curated endless scroll of social media; and combines it with quick video content for short attention spans, and manages to transcend English-speaking echo chambers. Its reputation as not high-brow, sometimes decried as ‘cringe’, added to its being ignored by the jet set.
In India, Internet penetration is still only at about 50 percent; the literacy rate is around 74 percent; and entrenched offline structural inequalities of caste, class, religion, gender, etc. tend to seamlessly spill into online spaces as well. Given the many barriers of access, a majority of Indians tend to get left out of those social media circles that pass for the ‘public sphere’. This ‘public sphere’ is, therefore, largely influenced and controlled by those at the higher end of the class and caste spectrums.
Even when the barrier of access to the Internet has been breached — as it has by the ubiquity of the smartphone — the first-time Internet user, especially from non-metropolitan India, runs up against the barrier of language. This upper class, upper caste public sphere conducts its business of influencing and opinion-making mostly through writing (which requires literacy) and often in English, leaving out the vast majority.
In some ways TikTok provided a platform that democratised the space of the Indian Internet. The shepherd with a winning smile who lip-syncs to Salman Khan songs while his sheep graze lazily in the background became as popular as any Hollywood celebrity doing one of the many ‘challenges’ on the platform. Everyone from teenagers and non-binary LGBTQI+ folk from Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities across India embraced the medium that allowed their everydayness, their queerness, and just their own selves to become accepted and even popular.
While TikTok is not without its problems (handling of user data, accusations of indecent content, problems with protecting children from objectionable matter, bullying, etc.), these problems are not particular to this app. Everyone from Facebook and Google to the many new TikTok replacers (that have suddenly mushroomed) have problematic content, uncertain data policies, and questionable privacy practices.
However, the ease with which TikTok allows users to make, edit, curate, and post content made it possible for everyone to become content producers, in a way that many other apps could not. The short quick video format made it easy for anyone to consume this content, allowing for a wider reach and more audiences. The sophisticated, in-built video-enhancing tools allowed everyone to make watchable videos. It was this that made TikTok one of the most popular apps in India with 200 million users in the country in 2019.
The mobile phone has been one of the most effective ways of taking the Internet across the digital divide. With mobile networks having become available in even the so called ‘remote’ areas of India, the Internet has become accessible to many first-time Internet users. These users often discover the Internet through applications such as WhatsApp and TikTok.
However, with the ban on TikTok, it remains to be seen how those who finally managed to find their spot in the sun react to this development. If the ban is not lifted soon, perhaps an indigenous phoenix will have to rise from the ashes of the Chinese behemoth.
Perhaps those whose voices had remained unheard for so long and had found a way to express themselves will have to find another way to enter our carefully curated elite ‘mainstream’ and shatter these structural barriers of the virtual world.Vidya Subramanian is a Post-Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay. Twitter: @vidyas42. Views are personal.