“When I saw that message on TikTok, I felt like my God was taken away from me,” says Kapse, who lives in a village near Lonar in Maharashtra’s Vidarba district.

For Kapse, like millions of others, TikTok was never just another Chinese import. It was a ladder to fame, and the only source of income during the lockdown that left people without work for months.

Kapse, 23, downloaded the app in February just to see what the fuss was about. He soon started posting videos of his art, and drawing people’s portraits on demand. Between March and June, he had accumulated 1.25 million followers, collaborated with celebrities like David Warner and Riteish Deshmukh, and earned about 60,000 a month by posting TikTok videos creating portraits on request. During the lockdown, when his farmer parents were out of work, it’s this income that kept the three-member family going.

“I never thought it was possible to make so much money just by making videos. People in my village started recognizing me. I felt more alive. Now, it’s all gone,” he says.

TikTok had more than 200 million followers across the country, but its relationship with people in tier-II and tier-III cities was special. With a smartphone and mobile data, people in remote towns and villages didn’t have to wait for an outsider to discover their talent. TikTok gave them the power to share their talent and make money without the filters of other social media platforms like Instagram or Facebook.

Hrushikesh Tikone, a daily wager from Pune, earned Rs30,000-35,000 a month mimicking lyrics on TikTok. During the three months of the lockdown, he gained 1.4 million followers and was featured in a Bhojpuri song. “TikTok was serious work. It was my dream to make a music album that would get thousands of views and that’s why I built my profile with so much hard work. It’s all wasted now,” says Tikone, 20. “I suddenly feel alone.”

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Dhanbad’s Sanatan Mahato, 25, and his elder sister Savitri are tired of the taunts from neighbours. “They used to look down on me for dancing with my brother in our TikTok videos, but it never used to affect me because people knew me by name. Now, with the ban I’m heartbroken and these people are laughing at us. There are no likes, no comments to make me feel better,” says Savitri, a schoolteacher, who gained a million followers on the TikTok account she shares with Sanatan, during the lockdown.

That’s the problem with social media. Along with the desire for fame and money comes the hunger for validation, which eventually becomes a quicksand of anxiety. It’s not just restricted to content creators, points out Manoj Sharma, a clinical psychologist who heads de-addiction centre SHUT Clinic at NIMHANS in Bengaluru. “We are all more active in the online world than in real life. Our appreciation for things has become restricted to likes, retweets and emojis.” TikTok boosted self-esteem. “There’s a need in all of us to become a better version of ourselves. TikTok gave people the liberty to be role models themselves. Now imagine having that taken away, the effect it will have on people.”

Kapse, the Mahato siblings and Tikone do not know which social media platform they will choose next. They are experimenting with YouTube, Mitron and Chingari but are not happy with them. The Mahatos are making videos, which they will upload after they zero in on a platform. Tikone is still not over losing his millions of followers. “I feel like I have lost of family. I don’t know what to do with all this free time,” he says.

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Kapse is well aware that he will have to adapt to stay relevant. “The platform might have changed but my talent is the same. I want to be famous and I will do whatever it takes.”

The end of an era

Enthusiasm and awareness to pivot are critical in the digital world, especially as the era of the wild Web gives way to a more controlled space. With China and India tightening digital borders and Twitter keeping a check on US President Donald Trump’s tweets, one can no longer share or create anything and get away with it.

That’s why Ashutosh Harbola, founder of influencer marketing company Buzzoka, is glad TikTok is no longer available in India. “There was so much crass content. I guess the biggest losers are the viewers of TikTok, who used to enjoy those videos.” To survive, TikTok creators will have to change their game plan. “You need to offer more than those 15 seconds of fun. Content has changed rapidly since the smartphone came into the picture.”

Luke Kenny, the actor who was among the first to introduce the concept of content in India two decades, agrees. “Sports, news and entertainment are still the mainstay. Everything else is just a function of technology,” says Kenny. “The concept of content began in the early days of satellite television. But as viewing patterns began to develop, content started to evolve and focus on ‘target audiences’. Game shows, cooking shows, reality shows led to an opening up of advertising markets like never before, thus creating the content boom that existed well into the mid-2000s. But finally, what made the tectonic shift was the arrival of the smartphone.”

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The reach of the smartphone is so wide that the Internet is no longer far removed from the physical world. This is why, Sunil Nair, who heads the India operations of video-sharing platform Firework, believes there will be more regulation like the ban on Chinese apps. “That ban was the black swan moment for India. Social media content has fallen into a rut. It’s time to shake things up.”

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