Cultivating a fan following on social media is hard work. Influencers offer masterclasses on ways to do it. You need to follow other brands and users, share, re-tweet, interact, comment, cross-post and submerge in online communities. But Naira, an aspiring model from Mumbai, has managed to garner more than 70,000 fans on TikTok in less than a month, without quite breaking a sweat. A mobile app launched by the Chinese tech company ByteDance in 2016, TikTok lets you create and share 15-second videos and live broadcasts. It is almost like an Asian version of Vine, the former American short-form video-hosting service.
Known as Douyin in China, TikTok—“raw, real and without boundaries”—is the new social media toy among Gen Z in Asia. India, too, has boisterously joined this come-one-come-all party. For Naira, 20, it happened with a titillating jig to a popular Bollywood song from the 1990s.
One day last month, after she returned from a photo shoot at around 3am, she uploaded on TikTok a video of herself in a revealing white ensemble, gently shimmying to a romantic Hindi song from the 1990s with her come-hither looks. “That is all I did,” she says over the phone from Mumbai. “Maybe I was just bored and I realised I was looking good that day. Now, who would have thought it would be viewed 3.7 million times?”
Naira often stresses this number in Indian units to drive home the magnitude of her feat. She wants her posts to hit the one million mark so she can monetise them. “I do not even follow anyone on TikTok,” she says. “But I already have so many fans.” She is impressed by how accommodating the platform is. “You may be the trashiest looking person with whom people do not want to associate. But that same person can be a star on TikTok. I just love that.” Naira says she has managed to defuse her mother’s outbursts at her provocative videos. “I tell her, ‘Look, I will anyway have to wear short clothes as a model for magazines and catwalks. So what is wrong with this?’”
On a lazy Sunday afternoon in Delhi, Anjan, a 26-year-old techie working in a media organisation, excitedly asks his friends if they have checked out TikTok. He flips through his TikTok feed to share his favourite videos with them on WhatsApp. Among the many he has chosen is the one of Naira in the white dress. His friends stare and snigger. Some locker room talk ensues. “Guess what,”he tells them with a chuckle. “The frequency of these semi-adult videos goes up at night if you are a male user. The app is very funny and strange.”His friends are sold and they immediately download TikTok from Google Play.
According to an app intelligence firm, in September, TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat in daily downloads in the US. It was also voted as one of the most entertaining apps of 2018 at the Google Play awards. ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, is now valued at $75 billion and has a bigger global following than any other Chinese internet company. In India, as per one news report, TikTok has gotten close to 100 million downloads, with 20 million active monthly users. It is more popular among users in Tier II and Tier III cities.
While at first glance, TikTok may seem to be full of droll lip-sync videos and catchy tunes born of viral challenges, the content is far from harmless. “Funny and strange”is surely one way to describe it. Adolescent boys stalking their female peers who act angry, coquettish or pliant. Boys yelling and mock-thrashing women for not serving food properly. A pre-teen girl in make-up suggestively acting out a Bhojpuri song. A brother-sister duo shooting their 70-plus grandfather dancing in a hut. A young techie in a sari and wig roasting and trolling songs holding a Harpic bottle. A portly, shirtless Odia comedian lip-syncing to Govinda or Atif Aslam from his bed.
TikTok can be asinine, voyeuristically addictive and deeply unsettling. “It is appalling how ridiculous TikTok’s approach to privacy is,” says Raju P.P., a Bengaluru-based technology commentator and editor. “They are happy to have more people jumping in to get higher traction. It is an endless stream of content, and the interface is so simple that anyone can get hooked to it. Sadly, that has resulted in a lot of edgy content by underage users in India and elsewhere. No, not all of it is bad, but the sheer lack of effort by TikTok to screen users and content is a big problem.”
For Gohan Chakraborty, 21, TikTok is a social experiment to launch his Kamasutra-inspired performance art. The dancer from Hyderabad has more than a million fans on the platform. His acrobatic moves which combine comedy and theatrics are a sensation. Billed a ‘TikTok celebrity’, he has started featuring in shows and events offline. His Instagram handle describes him as a “porn artist”. “You know, I am doing these funny dance videos on TikTok to gain visibility,” says Gohan, who does not like to go out much and wears a mask in public. “But that is not my true style.”
He says he wants to bust the taboos around sex in India by performing dance art in sexual positions. A little over two months ago, his videos were taken off TikTok for being overtly inappropriate, but he says he has managed to come back by promising not to create sexually explicit content. “But the real show-stopper is yet to come,” he says. “You wait and watch.”