When you first open the app, TikTok is madness. What greets you is an unfiltered stream of videos that the system decides people like you, the user, are interested in — based on your location and other videos with which you’ve interacted.
There is no warning. You’re pulled into a bizarre stream — rakhi videos with a Dr. Dre soundtrack; two guys playing cops and robbers to a song from the Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge soundtrack; a girl playing with mehndi.
TikTok has an estimated 200 million users in India, of whom 120 million are active every month. This means a line-up of unexpected acts. Creators put in an impressive degree of inventive thinking and physical effort into creating their content –jumping over fences; doing wheelies on bikes; bringing in grandmothers and other family members to join the performance; offering a self-deprecating comment on their own bodies and rituals.
The videos on the platform offer a poignant mix of candour and artifice. Often, content creators don’t try to hide context signals, like their neighbourhood or the décor in their home. This is a contrast from the content on many other video-driven social media content in which details of everyday life are usually concealed. Listen in on TikTok conversations in research forums, and you’ll hear commentators deliberate on this content barrage. There is a moral panic surrounding the platform. The concerns — pornography, hate-speech, catfishing, fake news, hackers — aren’t new. Every platform has been accused of it, but with TikTok, there is a layer of disgust and resentment, which perhaps reveals more about the commentator than the content creator. Whether it’s a comment like “Isn’t it interesting that you can’t tell she’s uneducated or from a poor background?” or “What does it mean sociologically when boys cry on TikTok?”, there is a level of condescension to the analysis.
The remarks on the simple-minded gaucheness of the creators hints at a demarcation of in-group and out-group identities, of identifying an ‘intrusion’ of Otherness into their social feeds. But if you manage to break out of the careful bubble that TikTok curates for you, you realise a whole different world of videos exist. A world of merriment and carefree, light humour that offers you glimpses into farmers’ kids dancing next to crops, girls watching the sun set over a mosque, boys going to salons and setting their hair artfully on fire — an infinite cabinet of curiosities.
TikTok captures a beautiful moment in time. The dopamine hits of views and likes are now freely available to newer population segments. While there is darkness in TikTok (as many news reports show us), there is also tremendous joy.
We had a machine look at these TikTok videos, focusing on elements such as images, objects, and colours within the frame. We then looked for these patterns across all the other cultural models that we have for India.
Scanning through videos — such as one that shows a man flipping naan set to the soundtrack of lively, pop music — the machine classified these videos as “celebrations”, grouped together with occasions like weddings, festivals, and graduations. These weddings, festivals and graduations were not taking place in TikTok. To put it simply, the machine “thought” that the TikTok video was actually closer to an actual celebration, than it was to anything else that exists in culture.
Remove the human bias that evaluates these elements as “other”, and most of the videos essentially communicate one thing — festivity. Characters in the most everyday of backdrops (such as the roadside) are being classified as being in celebrations of sorts because of their physical movements, colourful clothes, and high-spirited background music connoting jubilation.
This conversion of mundane and everyday life into a performance that is full of joy is something worth acknowledging. While commentators speak about abuse and cruelty as a consequence of TikTok, we need to also consider this: about 120 million individuals trying to craft, in some shape or form, a shift in the repetition and dryness of everyday life. They are creating and consuming content that celebrates, laughs and connects.
It’s a magical time to be a new user of the Internet, especially an Internet that infuses the everyday with something unexpected. The next time you walk by people filming TikTok videos, pause and watch what they’re doing. They are trying to shift reality. Why shouldn’t we all dance with our grandmothers?
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This article was first published in the Hindustan Times on Aug 21, 2019: