Shailesh Kapoor: The TikTok India Story: Paused or Aborted?

03 Jul,2020

By Shailesh Kapoor


Less than two years ago, sometime in mid-2018, if someone mentioned ‘TikTok’ to you, chances are you would have asked: “Sorry, what’s that?” The Bytedance-owned app, launched in late 2016, began to found traction in India from 2018, and skyrocketed in popularity in 2019. Estimates of downloads and active users suggest that India was TikTok’s biggest market in 2019, ahead of the native market China. Unlike other global apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, TikTok did not have an organised marketing muscle behind it. It built its user base organically, suggesting deep product resonance in the India market.


Data available with Ormax Media suggests that TikTok’s user profile is distinctive compared to other social media apps. The biggest distinction is the pop strata. A large section of TikTok users in India come from mini-metros and small towns, far more in proportion than even Facebook, which is the other wide-reaching social media platform in India. Instagram is heavily skewed on age, towards the sub-30 bracket, and Twitter is largely restricted to a niche English-speaking user base, a large chunk of which belongs to the top 10 cities in the country.


Short user-generated videos are a powerful and inclusive format. They are easy to create and even easier to watch. That’s perhaps why a lot of TikTok stars that have emerged in India are a new bunch altogether, with no previous presence or awareness on YouTube, a platform that can come across as a lot more intimidating for a creator than TikTok.


With growth comes its share of problems. TikTok has been embroiled in controversies over the last several months. Very recently, a TikTok post from one Faizal Siddiqui, glorifying acid attacks, create a furore. It can be argued that TikTok has been a bit lackadaisical in its approach towards handling such cases that violate community guidelines. In early 2019, the Madras High Court had imposed a ban on TikTok for not taking action against pornographic content. The ban was later lifted.


In the Siddiqui case, TikTok responded by suspending his account, and issuing a statement too. But not before several prominent voices started advocating a ban on the app. In the current times of the ‘Chinese virus’ and now the escalation at the border, anything Chinese needs just a spark around it, and a raging fire is sure to be ignited. Politicians are suckers for opportunistic timing, and a handle from a Chinese app, putting up a video endorsing acid attacks in times of Covid, is political opportunity presenting itself on a platter.


Given the context, the ban on TikTok, along with 58 other Chinese apps, has not come as a surprise to many. Evidently, these apps are soft targets in the current environment. It’s a populist move that does get a large section of the nation behind it.


TikTok creators will have to find other platforms, and they may be spoilt for choices, with many high-profile launches round the corner. Instagram has Reels, YouTube has Shorts and Facebook had Lasso, till they announced just yesterday that it’s shutting down the app. Zee5 announced the launch of its platform HiPi within a couple of days of the TikTok ban announcement. The press release says HiPi is a platform “made for Aatmanirbhar Bharat”.


TikTok has been one of the most unusual success stories in the Indian media space in recent years, and also an under-reported one. Will it return to India anytime soon? The odds are heavily stacked up against the app, and it may take a while for it to find its way through. And in the social media context, that time gap may be enough to kill it forever.

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