The best jokes about India banning Tik-Tok were on Tik-Tok, but people not on the popular Chinese app probably wouldn’t have got them.
The jokes contained not only funny lines but also music, dance, acting, emojis and a whole lot of wackiness. Thousands of those went viral in the 12-odd hours that the app was functional on Indian smartphones after the government banned it, citing cybersecurity worries.
Scores of users had already uninstalled the app in the name of patriotism since border tensions escalated between India and China earlier this month, but many refused to hit delete. As a popular creator said in her latest video while spinning on her heel: “They are making Tik-Tok videos to order us to delete Tik-Tok. No chance!”
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On Tuesday morning, the company voluntarily disabled the app that opened up social media celebrity to millions of people in small-town and rural India but also sparked concerns about mass surveillance and large-scale transfer of data to the Chinese government.
By then, many Tik-Tok stars had already posted videos urging their fans to follow them to rival platforms such as Instagram or YouTube. But as some of them pointed out themselves between sobs and sniffles, it won’t be the same. They would need talent for YouTube, coolness for Instagram, irony for Snapchat.
“It may be just an app for some people, but for me it translates to four years of sweat. Hundreds of apps like this can come and go, but this is where I could make 6.8 million people laugh,” said a comic star in his goodbye video. He will never know if it was the quality of his jokes that attracted 6.8 million followers, but what made TikTok special was that being bad at something could make you as popular as being good at it.
No one knew what worked, so everyone had a chance, and millions went for it regardless of looks, location and language skills.
Israil Ansari was one of them.
In 2018, the then 18-year-old posted his first TikTok, a 15-second video of himself dancing to a Bollywood song with the rice fields of his Uttar Pradesh village in the backdrop. Ansari looks funny dancing, as he is happy to admit, but that didn’t stop his video from becoming viral — or perhaps that’s what did it. “Hanse toh phanse (laugh and you are hooked)” is how he explained his wild success on the platform.
Since 2017, when he left his village and his job at the local hardware store to move to Lucknow and then Mumbai, Ansari, a school dropout, has earned more than two million followers and over Rs 1 lakh in monthly income from public appearances and brand endorsements. All he had to do, he says, was stay true to his character. Now that TikTok’s gone, he is trying his best to brave it out. “Koi dikkat nahin hai (no issues). The public knows me, and that’s what matters. I will find another platform from where I can earn an income,” he said.
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“The fact that someone like Shilpa Shetty or Riteish Deshmukh has to do duets with this dancer from a village in order to be popular on TikTok explains its appeal to users,” says Sheikh Khalfan whose Mumbai-based online channel tracks TikTok celebrities.
He now spends his entire time consoling them. “The stars are in a frenzy trying to build their presence on YouTube or Instagram. But they are too used to the rhythm of TikTok,” Khalfan said. “A 30-second video is all it took to get famous overnight so people put out all their creativity into it, whether it was comedy or karaoke. And even after they earned followers, that’s how they approached every video. That habit will be hard to break out of it,” he said.
For the followers, too, it won’t be an easy switch from TikTok to another video entertainment platform.
“On TikTok, you like something and it keeps giving you more and more of that. I like dance videos, for example, and my feed never runs out of it. The platform understands the human brain,” Khalfan said.
He is not wrong. TikTok users spend most of their time on the app going through a feed made for them via artificial intelligence. The AI-system offers them a random stream of popular videos when they sign up and studies how they react to each one, from the time they spend watching a video to the speed with which they swipe up or down, besides reading the obvious signals such as likes, comments and follows.
The more time users spend inside the app, the better it becomes at predicting what they will like. To be sure, experts have long questioned this system, saying the data collected on users was not only being transferred to third-party businesses but also possibly to the Chinese government. Moreover, TikTok was found last month to have intercepted personal data of users by logging their keystrokes in an attempt to circumvent end-to-end encryption.
The effect of its algorithm was often addictive. Through most of India’s months-long coronavirus-sparked lockdown, TikTok remained the country’s most downloaded app as people sought an escape from the reality. Now, they will have to find another distraction.
To Sabira Khan, a popular creator known for posting sad videos, this feels like an end. “The news has broken me. I have been crying since I heard. I had just reached a million followers, and it had taken me a lot of hard work through these months of lockdown,” said the creator.
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