Everyone has seen a TikTok video, even if you have never heard about the video-sharing and Karaoke app and don’t know what it is. In that sense, it’s a bit like GST – it doesn’t matter whether you understand it, and there is no way to escape it. And it has hit the online world like a tsunami.
Remember that friend from college who posts Instagram videos, lip-syncing to famous Bollywood dialogues and songs? The ones where you watch and go “Why?” That is probably a TikTok video. If you’re wondering “Hang on, isn’t that Musical.ly?”, congratulations, you’re catching up. Musical.ly was acquired by the Chinese company ByteDance in November 2017 and they merged it with their app TikTok in August 2018. TikTok has exploded worldwide and has more users than Reddit, Twitter, Skype, Snapchat, and LinkedIn. I don’t know what’s more surprising, that TikTok has gotten so popular so quickly, or that a Chinese product has lasted more than ten days.
For the vanilla user, TikTok might just be an extension to Snapchat and Instagram. However, while “stories” disappear with time, on TikTok one can ensure that the embarrassment is etched into online history forever. People who dance showcase their dancing skills. People who are into fitness and health put up workout tips and videos. Fashion enthusiasts display new outfits everyday, and those who have nothing, upload pictures of food and their pets.
But to classify TikTok as vanilla would not only be an understatement, it would also be wrong. For TikTok hosts everything from the simple, to the bizarre, to the extremely fucking weird.
I’ve watched these videos with growing fascination and amusement every day, on FB pages with borderline offensive names like Reptiles of Kurla. Teenagers apply glycerine to their eyes and cry to emotional Bollywood songs from the ’90s, showcasing more emotions in 15 seconds than John Abraham has in his entire acting career. The trend even has a special Facebook page dedicated to it, called “Boys who cry passionately on Musically India”. For added effect, jam and juice are sometimes applied on the body to show blood and heartbreak.
If you’re not into drama, don’t worry, there’s a place for everyone on TikTok. Comedy skits are the rage. On downloading the app, the third video I saw was a man in a village jumping from the roof of his house to another roof with music from Krrish playing in the background. There were no safety precautions in place, nor was this some kind of prank – it was just 15 seconds of masti content. In another video, a bunch of guys were lip-syncing to a popular scene from Phir Hera Pheri that ends with Babu bhaiya being pushed into a swimming pool. In the TikTok video, the guy is pushed into an actual well in a farm by his friends as they try to recreate the scene. I laughed for a good two minutes.
Then, there are challenges. Remember the ice bucket challenge? TikTok has its own array of challenges that regularly feature in their trending hashtags. In the #SoapChallenge, one had to put as many bubbles as you could in your hand and then blow them out to the app’s slow motion effect. I know you believe you can visualise it, but believe me, it’s like the Trump presidency – you cannot until you’ve seen it. The #FaceChallenge was about mimicking 10 animal faces in 15 seconds. Watch out CGI, we’re coming for those animated roles in Disney movies. In the #RotationChallenge, you had to turn on the selfie camera on your phone and then try rotating the phone 360 degrees in your hand. I tried it five times, and all I had to show for my efforts were a hurt ego and a sprained wrist. Clearly, I’m far away from being a popular TikTok star.
TikTok is not merely an app, it’s an experience. It’s an avenue to a different world, a different India. It’s not populated only by your friends, people like you, or those belonging to the same economic, social and cultural environment as you. It has made inroads into rural and small town India, and they’re creating and sharing content in a massive way. It is what the meeting point of a Jio sim card and a Netflix account would look like.
The medium doesn’t have a limitation of text, grammar, or language that many other social media networks suffer from. No one’s trying to show you how great their life is or how someone spelt their name on a cup at Starbucks, like on Instagram. You don’t need to know an American show reference or what a particular contextual meme means. To a large extent, it has eroded the rural-urban divide and made it a level playing field for everyone with a camera phone and data connection. You have a camera, basic editing features and 15 seconds to earn likes and comments, the medium’s currency. “Make every second count” is TikTok’s tagline (and also the working title for the movie to every guy’s sex life).
There is a tendency to dismiss the content as bordering on the extremes of cringe: Easy for us Netflix-watching, organic-cafe-frequenting, nihilist types who couldn’t see earnestness if it hit them between the eyes. Sure, the videos on TikTok don’t match up to the quality of content we’re used to consuming. But what it has, is the spirit of rebellion against a generation defined by snark, the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of what is “cool” and what is “cringe” on the Interwebz. “This is how Dhinchak Poojas and Taher Shahs are born,” the cool kids at Reddit are already up in arms. One must never forget though, that one man’s earnest creative attempt is another man’s cringe. On TikTok, there’s place for everyone, and that is its beauty.