TikTok in India: Where uncute content is ready to ring the till
Akshay Kakkar is a mini celebrity. With over 45,000 fans on TikTok he has become a popular household name in Shahdara in east Delhi. His images on the Chinese video platform shows a chubby man in his early twenties dancing to the popular Meri neendein hain faraar and Mujhko hui na khabar Bollywood songs.
By Kakkar’s own admission, he is overweight. Yet, his dancing videos memes rank way above those of conventionally beautiful girls – fair, svelte, and dolled up – swaying to the same songs, he says, chuffed with his recent popularity on TikTok.
Kakkar, 23, has dealt with bullying, fat shaming and taunting remarks on his choice of songs and an unmanly dancing style in the past. The last six months have been different: a whole new life of respect and recognition after he started posting on TikTok. He has made new friends, been contacted for dancing lessons, and even found a girlfriend through the platform.
“There are still a lot of people who have the vilest things to say on my dancing videos,” Kakkar told me a few weeks ago. “But those comments are dwarfed by the number of positive comments and support I get on TikTok.” Some days later, he was offered an appearance on a reality TV show. He’s not allowed to name it.
Kakkar calls the audience on TikTok kinder. It prefers talent over pretty faces and well-toned bodies, he insists.
Self-serving as it seems, the freelance science tutor may have made an astute observation.
Parag Padiya who has 126,800 fans on TikTok agrees with Kakkar. Padiya who posts videos with his three-year-old daughter Arohi, has vitiligo, a condition that causes the skin to lose colour in patches. His wife and Arohi, too, have vitiligo. The family gets a huge amount of support and appreciation on their videos. “Our followers love me and my daughter,” he says. Once when he posted a black and white video, Padiya’s followers urged him to not let his skin condition hold him back.
“I was using a black and white filter to create an effect and not to hide my skin condition. But the support of people who told me that they are accepting me the way I am, still meant a lot,” says Padiya, 32, an account executive at a local firm in Rajkot.
Kakkar and Padiya may not realise that the “kinder” and “accepting” qualities they see on TikTok are but markers of a subtle change in the consumption of social media platforms in India. If a few years ago Instagram was the go-to platform for India 1 – as the top 100 million Indians by wealth are often called – TikTok has muscled into the sweepstakes with a formidable following in India 2 and India 3, the next 100 million and 1.13 billion Indians respectively. The India 1, 2, and 3 framework is often used by analysts while looking at purchasing power of Indians and how businesses sell to them.
The numbers speak volumes: Instagram has over 70 million so-called monthly active users in India (those who log on at least once a month), while TikTok has crossed 52 million MAUs last month, according to a presentation the platform made to advertisers.
And, what’s the subtle social media transition that we talked about earlier? If Instagram was the destination for all things beautiful that India’s upper and wannabe classes flocked to, TikTok is rooted in hinterland India with a focus on talents sans make-up or filters.
Noopur Raval, a researcher of digital platforms, calls the two platforms “a case of massy versus classy app”. The upper middle class has a conspicuous consumption culture where people seek to go up and to align to rich people, she points out. Which made Instagram a popular choice among this class.
But among poorer sections and lower middle class, the natural choice is to look for relatability and comfort in entertainment content, says Raval. TikTok speaks to them in terms of continuity. “This is the same world that you have seen in a Kapil Sharma show or a stand up by Raju Srivastav where crass, oddball or slapstick humour is appreciated,” she says.
“TikTok has organically identified the lower middle class segment,” she concludes. In other words, India 2 and 3 are its fief — and, given some common cultural tastes, TikTok’s success is slowly eating into India 1.
Much of India 1’s initial reaction to TikTok has been that it’s cringey. There are enough compilations on YouTube and Facebook of crying boys, oddballs and cringe-inducing miming videos made by teenagers to older men to overweight women. TikTok is home to popular creators who are not the best looking, presentable or even exceptionally talented as opposed to popular Instagram users who needs to look pretty and polished to make themselves and their lives look more glam than real. But, it’s the creator’s earnestness, as he or she sheds inhibitions, that makes the content sticky.
Take the case of Sumit Jain, a cloth store owner in Dhule, a Maharashtra town 325 km northeast to Mumbai. Let’s say Jain looks different. He will draw attention even in a crowd. He is leaner than most people and has an oddly elliptical face cut. The sinews on his neck stand out. But when he is dancing or mimicking a popular Bollywood actor, he transforms into an extraordinary performer — one that has 1.4 million fans on TikTok. A video of him bench pressing at a gym has over 184,600 likes and nearly 3,000 comments: from people cheering him to others poking fun of his frail frame to some taking his side against the naysayers.
Jain, 27, says the negative comments don’t bother him. They have been a part of his life. “If anything, negative comments motivate me to work harder,” he says.
A network like TikTok that celebrates oddities or uniqueness has given people like Jain a platform. His comic timing and dancing has even had a filmmaker reach out to him for a part in a movie, he says.
Dubsmash walked, TikTok runs
TikTok (earlier Musical.ly) that spread like a rage in the country in the last one year was more popular for its lipsyncing videos among teens. In fact, even before TikTok or Musical.ly, it was Dubsmash that introduced the concept of lip syncing in India and even globally. Dubsmash had its run among teens and even celebrities in India with very little marketing effort. From politicians like Lalu Yadav to Bollywood celebs like Salman Khan and Deepika Padukone, the German origin platform got a good push through popular creators on its platform.
Musical.ly the new kid on the block that got popular around early 2015 in the U.S, soon found its set of teenage users who flocked to Musical.ly to create lipsyncing videos and post them on other social media platforms.
The main reason for the decline of Dubsmash and the popularity of Musical.ly (now TikTok) was that the former was used mainly as a tool to create videos, says Himanshu Gupta, head of growth at Walnut, a personal finance portal.
“Dubsmash like the photo editing tool Prisma, was a popular tool to create content, but it never functioned as a platform to promote content – as opposed to TikTok or Instagram that stress on creating a community platform rather than just functioning as a tool,” says Gupta, who in a previous job was with the Indian unit of WeChat, the Chinese super-app.
That platform approach locks in customers and makes TikTok weirdly addictive. Its 52 million MAUs in India spend an average 29 minutes daily on the app. A first time user lands up on a full screen 15-second vertical video, without any sign-up on the platform. Swiping down vertically takes you to the next video and so on.
Stunts, cringe, action
Once you have got the attention of your users, how do you keep their interest? TikTok’s answer is throwing relevant challenges at them. To a great extent, it has worked well for the Los Angeles-headquartered company that is owned by Chinese giant ByteDance.
For instance, its local content around Diwali got 2.3 billion views on TikTok platform. Challenges around desi content like a popular Hindi song Tera Ghata gets a 342.4 million views — comparable to the top 25 all-time views on YouTube India. A meme of a Malayalam movie Oru Adaar Love gets 191.4 million views. The company has a local content team in Mumbai whose job is to find relevant trends and make challenges and memes out of them….Read More>>>