Until recently, this section of online users frowned upon TikTok’s content and labelled it “cringe-worthy” even as users from tier-II and -III cities gained rewards and recognition through the platform, turning India into the biggest market for the Chinese video-sharing social network.
Advertising executives tracking TikTok note something unprecedented about the current spike in user downloads after the entire country went into lockdown. It is the trend of “India 1” suddenly embracing ByteDance’s flagship product with open arms. “India 1 is softening towards TikTok. It is accepting the platform’s idiosyncrasies instead of labelling it cringe-worthy,” says Ishtaarth Dalmia, a qualified anthropologist and AVP strategy at digital agency Webchutney.
One of the reasons TikTok has been able to catch on with India’s social media elite is due to a surge in its visibility on other popular platforms.
“People are seeing more and more intellectuals and influencers share TikTok videos on Twitter and Instagram,” says Nikhil Chinnari, an advertising executive at ad agency BBH India. “This is subconsciously removing the barrier for users who thought the platform is for the masses and not the classes.”
From global music sensation, Drake, to popular Indian actors like Shilpa Shetty, TikTok now boasts a long list of celebrities who have taken to the platform in recent times to post goofy videos while confined in their homes.
While TikTok declined to comment on its recent user growth, an App Annie report released earlier this April states that it was the most downloaded app in India in the social media category as the country went into a lockdown. As of March 12, 2020, the app had an estimated 500 million downloads in India as against 180 million in China and 120 million in the US, according to a Sensor Tower report.
At a time when most other social media platforms—like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp—are saddled with negative or fake news, homebound urbanites are finding an escape from their anxieties in TikTok videos that feature catchy audio-visual filters. “It is helping my mental health in these trying times,” says Pankaj Sinha, a 30-year-old automobile engineer from Delhi, who recently downloaded the app after spotting several TikTok videos on Twitter and WhatsApp.
Until recently, Aashana Agarwal, a 25-year-old Mumbaikar working at an e-commerce company, thought TikTok was not meant for her “kind of people”. But these days she spends 3-4 hours at a stretch on the platform, not only scrolling through videos but also uploading a few comic clips using effects like stop-motion and time-lapse. “It’s pure fun and that’s what we desperately need right now,” she says.
A friend coaxed Agarwal into joining the platform shortly after lockdown, she tells ET. Chinnari from BBH says his 25-year-old sister, Nikhita, has also recently signed up on TikTok on a friend’s insistence. “She never downloaded it when I tried to pitch the app to her,” he adds.
These friend-led converts create a domino effect within their circles. Malathi Jogi, a 27-year-old instructional designer from Mumbai, signed up because a “relentless friend” wanted her to check some videos that could not be shared outside the platform—TikTokers can disable downloading option for their videos. The two eventually convinced another common friend to install the app. Besides the cringe-attack, Jogi was wary of the problematic content she had heard TikTok was infamous for. What has been a revelation to her and many like her is the option to upvote and downvote content on their homepage to help their algorithm suggest videos as per their taste.
From aversion, Jogi is on the path to addiction now as she often communicates with her two friends in popular TikTok audio formats like “Bored in the house, I’m in the house bored,” and “Thanks for checking in, I’m still a piece of garbage.” Since the audio clips mirror the reality of these times, “they automatically seep into our vocabulary,” she says.
Many urban dwellers don’t aspire to become Tiktok creators even as they spend hours scrolling through videos on the app right now. Unlike most social media platforms, TikTok allows such users a sense of anonymity, too. “If you create an account on Instagram, your Facebook friends are likely to get notified of your presence. That baggage doesn’t exist on TikTok,” says Dalmia of Dentsu Webchutney. One can easily lurk through the app without feeling the pressure to create or contribute, says Jogi who enjoys watching TikTokers from different countries post funny content around their quarantine life.
Even upmarket influencers are finding value in the Chinese video-sharing social network. Fashion blogger Malvika Billa, with over 100,000 followers on her Instagram account, started TikToking during her self-quarantine period last month.
Billa, 24, lives in Paris but caters to India’s premium fashion-conscious segment through her blogging. She joined TikTok looking for ideas to create content in these times when most creators in her field are struggling to come up with new ideas and resources. On TikTok, she found useful hashtags like #FashionHacks and #ClothingHacks to create videos that she then shared with her Instagram followers, leading to a rapid rise in her follower count to 100,000 even when Covid-19 has dampened lifestyle bloggers’ spirit.
39-year-old Priyanka Lahiri is also a recent addict. A Bengaluru-based marketing professional and a fitness enthusiast, she finds fitness-themed videos of TikTokers from tier-II and -III cities both amazing and entertaining. “Earlier, I thought the content on TikTok was below me. Now, I feel you require courage to pull off this kind of stuff.”
Does this mean India-1 and TikTok are BFFs (Best Friends Forever) now? Perhaps not. Besides Billa and Lahiri, who have found utility in TikTok’s content that goes far beyond their entertainment needs, most others doubt if they’ll stick around once the lockdown is over.
“The nature of videos gets repetitive after a point,” says Chinnari’s sister Nikhita who studies in Switzerland but flew back to India before the lockdown began. The excitement is wearing off even for Rangoli Kute, the friend who got Nikhita onboard TikTok in the first place. “It feels like following several meme accounts for now. But once work resumes, I’m more likely to find Instagram’s lifestyle trends more useful,” says the 26-year-old who runs her family’s hotel business in Nashik.
Mumbai’s Agarwal says she will stay back if more of her friends willingly migrate to the app soon. “Right now, we are all at home so it’s easy to make fun videos. Otherwise, it’s always easier to put photos with filters than use filters to make videos.”