NEW DELHI—Wearing a white T-shirt with red vertical stripes, curly-haired Awal Madan smiled non-stop as he explained the meaning of Thug Life in a video in a sing-song voice. “You would have heard the phrase ‘thug life’ in comedy videos, where they will say something and then black sunglasses will come over the face, and a cigar, and the words ‘thug life’.”
Madan continued in Hindi, “[it’s] a life where you face a lot of challenges, but even so, you best them all, and make your mark on everyone. You won’t say that for someone who is a hero to start with, for whom life comes on a silver platter.”
“Thug,” he added, still in Hindi, “doesn’t come from the Hindi word thug but was something that an American rapper came up with.”
Madan is one of the 200-million-plus Indians who are active on TikTok, a short-video-sharing platform owned by Chinese company ByteDance. Madan makes short videos that explain different phrases in English, to teach people modern, conversational slang.
TikTok was originally known as Musical.ly, and even earlier, the app was already popular among kids who would lip-sync to songs and share videos.
But once it was acquired and rebranded, TikTok’s growth was rapid, particularly in the smaller cities and towns of India, much to the alarm of other social media companies, whether global giants like Facebook and Twitter, or rising Indian firms like ShareChat.
Now Madan is among the TikTok users who have been featured in the app’s latest initiative called EduTok, through which the company is trying to change its image as “just-a-song-and-dance-app” and highlight people who make educational videos on its platform. Some news reports have termed the initiative as TikTok’s attempt to “reform” its image as it faces accusations of censorship and not doing enough to tackle predators on its platform.
Madan, who has been making videos on YouTube for years, started using TikTok in March, and usually explains one piece of slang per video through examples that his users can relate to.
This is how he explained the meaning of ′savage’ in another video. He told his viewers that they would have heard the phrase in a Baadshah song, where he sings: “baaki average, baby tu hai savage.”
After explaining that savage used to mean “jungli,” he said, “Modern English mein, Savage ka matlab hai mast insaan.”
Madan, who moved to Delhi 15 years ago to work for an MNC, found that his command of the English language was very bookish, and he had trouble following the modern style of writing.
“I spent a lot of time working on my language, and improved myself, and I moved up in the company,” Madan said. “Eventually I decided that I wanted to help people in the same way, and started making these YouTube videos.”
Madan is also active on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, but says that his growth on TikTok is unlike anything he’s seen before. He has been on YouTube since 2008, where he now has 7.8 million subscribers. In just seven months of using TikTok, he has acquired more than 6 million followers.
The major reason for that is the instant appeal TikTok has for Indians living in small towns and villages, who may be intimidated by the language barriers they face in other apps. Millions of Indians use the app every day to post short videos of themselves lip-syncing to songs or acting out their fantasies. TikTok has also been a platform for self-expression for people like Pawan Kumar, a Gurgaon-based MNC professional who uses the platform to stream clips about fashion, dancing to Bollywood songs or to showcase his travels.
Madan lives with his parents in Sonipat, where his father—a motivational speaker—was already making YouTube videos.
“My lessons won’t make you grammatically perfect,” he said, “but you’ll not feel out of place when people are talking in English.”
“Knowledge of English is a way of life in bigger cities,” he added. “I have a lot of dedicated fans now—recently I went to Mumbai, I went to Phoenix mall, and over there, all the salesgirls and boys recognised me and came for selfies. A lot of Ola and Uber drivers also tell me that they watch my videos, because they get better ratings when they speak in English.”
Who’s watching TikTok in India?
According to global market research firm Forrester, TikTok’s success has turned the spotlight on short videos once again.
“In India, younger consumers living in metro and small cities use TikTok, which gives marketers a platform to reach users who are not easy to tap otherwise,” Meenakshi Tiwari, forecast analyst at Forrester, told IANS. “SBI Life, an insurance company in India, did a campaign for its app ‘YONO’ to woo youngsters in small towns and garnered more than seven million views in a week.”
She added that TikTok’s success is also attributable to its ability to adapt to markets vastly different from its homeground of China.
“In each country, TikTok has its own local team that plans and monitors content specifically for younger demographics; this has attracted a high number of active users on its platform,” she said.
While questions have been raised about how much of this growth is genuine, TikTok’s parent ByteDance has told the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology that it “does not pay creators to create content, nor does it interfere with or control the creation of content on the platform”.
TikTok told HuffPost India that it engages with “certain users who can promote the platform and teach other users on how to generate the most value of the tools available on the platform. TikTok encourages and incentivizes high-quality content creation by some of these users, but it does not exercise any editorial control over specific content creation”.
This incentivisation comes in the form of payments, ranging from $100 to $200, to — in a few extreme cases — $1,750, for a commitment of up to 30 original videos every month, including crossposting these videos to other social networks with the TikTok logo in them. However, such contracts are signed with only a small number of creators.
“According to a report, Bytedance spent $1 billion in advertising in the US, and paid one influencer $1 million for an advertising run.”
In the US, TikTok gives Starbucks reward coupons, AMC theatre tickets, Uber gift cards, and much more, to its most active “influencers”. According to a Wall Street Journal report, it has spent $1 billion in advertising in the US, and paid one influencer $1 million for an advertising run. It has also paid campus ambassadors and hired four different agencies for its advertising spends in the US alone.
Its critics say that this kind of incentivisation isn’t actually good for the platform, and only leads to short term growth. “The worst step a social network can take towards growth is offering money to users to create on their platform. I see quite a few Indian content apps offering thousands of rupees to get creators to post,” tweeted Harsh Snehanshu, CEO of Your Quote, and app that gives people tools and encouragement to write stories, poems, and more.
“It might get you some growth and some investors might get excited by it too but it will never scale. It will start tapering off. Recognition or social capital has traditionally been the most lucrative incentive for creators, but we at YourQuote have discovered that connection and community are an even better incentive for creators.”
But in India, many people also use TikTok because they see an avenue for quick growth. TamilTechOfficial (A Viswanath) is an app developer who also doubles up as a YouTuber with around 1.5 million subscribers. On TikTok, he’s added almost 75,000 subscribers in the last six months.
He posts short videos where he highlights the features of new smartphones, in short clips. “When I have free time, I make videos about applications and features. I explain about technology in Tamil. There are a lot of comments and there is a lot of interest,” he said.
“The narrative that TikTok is only for making silly lip syncing and dancing videos has echoes of the early stories that Snapchat was just for college students sexting,” Matthew Brennan, a technology commentator based in China, posted on Twitter last year. “There’s a kernel of truth behind the narratives yet they both completely miss the true value of either product.”
But what does this ‘audience’ translate into for people like Viswanath or Madan? For them, TikTok is less about making money and more about acquiring a whole new audience. “On YouTube, the audience is more 24-35 years,” said Madan. “On TikTok it’s even younger, and they’re much more likely to contact you. Like ‘Thug Life’ is something I chose to do because people in the comments asked me for it.”
“But there is not really monetisation on TikTok,” he added. “Even on YouTube, you can’t make much money directly. It’s not about the platform but the brand you build for yourself. I’ve got some language apps, some investment brands who approached me for sponsored videos, but it’s really small on TikTok.”
TikTok and the government: it’s complicated
TikTok has had a roller-coaster relationship with institutions in India. In April, the Madras High Court ordered a ban on TikTok, directing the central government to prohibit the download of the app. The app, the court said, hosts inappropriate content, including pornography, available for access to children.
Numerous sites and platforms in India have faced bans for these reasons, with varying levels of justification. In the case of TikTok, a detailed BBC investigation earlier this year found hundreds of sexually explicit comments on videos posted by young children.
In response to the ban, TikTok stepped up its efforts in moderation. The company told HuffPost India, “TikTok has a zero tolerance for any objectionable content on the platform. We have a vigorous mechanism in place to ensure creating a positive in app environment for the community.”
“In line with this, we have a highly efficient content moderation technology with a robust human moderation team. The moderation team in India covers 15 major Indian languages, including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati and more. By the end of the year, 25% of our 1,000 member strong workforce will be dedicated to content moderation,” it added.
TikTok has also made a strong effort to stay in the government’s good books, running campaigns around its pet schemes like #CleanIndia, promoting Swachh Bharat and #Skills4India, launched in partnership with the National Skills Development Corporation. #EduTok focuses on education, health, and wellness, and #WaitASecToReflect is a campaign that’s also being run in print ads, to inspire “responsible” conduct online.
But a lot of rivals are quietly hoping that the government will take steps against the app. One executive for an Indian social media platform, who asked not to be named, told HuffPost India, “These guys have just grown from paying money. There’s nothing genuine about them, and the government should ban something like this. They talk about Clean India and Skill India, but their content is all garbage.”
There is very little hygiene management on the app, and clicking on a particular hashtag may show few videos actually related to the topic.
And although TikTok raised the case for free speech against its ban in India, the company itself is willing to censor topics widely. Lawyer and Internet freedom activist Mishi Choudhary noted: “TikTok may be eating everyone’s lunch but the built-in censorship is a feature.”
Recent reports say that TikTok is censoring videos about Tibet, and Tiananmen Square. But while the headlines focus on China-related topics, the list of sensitive subjects is a lot wider. Leaked documents detailing the site’s moderation guidelines accessed by The Guardian showed that other banned topics included “inciting independence in Northern Ireland, and exaggerating the ethnic conflict between black and white.”
It’s clear that TikTok wants to steer clear of the kinds of controversies that dog Facebook around political influence or fake news, for example. Despite that, the platform can—like any other public forum—be used to spread hate speech. But that just makes it more similar to its bigger rivals, not different.