(Source: BloombergQuint)

Inside India’s TikTok Addiction

Anagha K, flanked by her parents, dances to a song from the blockbuster 1993 Tamil movie The Gentleman. With 1.8 million likes, the 15-second video is among the most-watched on TikTok. Scroll down her feed, and you will see the 18-year-old lip-syncing and grooving to popular numbers, pretending to be coy, angry or ecstatic. Followed by 1.5 million users, Anagha is an internet sensation in southern India.

“Initially, I would feel weird when people, especially the young, looked at me and asked for selfies,” Anagha said over the phone. “But I’m used to it now.” She even got offers for movies but declined, she said, without giving details.

Anagha puts up nearly 15 videos every month on the Chinese app that lets users record and share short clips. The fame won on TikTok helped the first-year commerce undergrad from Palakkad, Kerala earn 139,000 followers on Instagram. She now makes about Rs 10,000 a month from paid promotions on the Facebook-owned video-sharing platform, besides competitions organised by TikTok.

Yet, she only represents the fun side of cheap-data fuelled internet explosion in the country where more than half the 1.3-billion population is less than 25 years in age. Tiktok has run into trouble as users also upload obscene clips or dangerous stunt videos that have killed at least two people. The app, operated by the world’s most-valuable startup Bytedance, deleted six million videos but still faces a ban. TikTok, which said it has 120 million active users in India, has been removed from Apple and Google app stores.

Inside India’s TikTok Addiction

The Beijing-based service, locally called Douyin, crossed one billion downloads last month, according to a report by analytics firm SensorTower. A quarter or nearly 250 million of those came from India alone, where an estimated 88.6 million new users downloaded the app in the last quarter alone.

The nation, with more than half-a-billion wireless internet users, is already the biggest market for Facebook with 300 million users and WhatsApp with 200 million, according to data on Statista. Twitter has 34 million users in India. There have been concerns around fake news and hate content shared on these platforms as well. Still, alarm caused by TikTok, which also drives engagement on other apps, is unprecedented. That’s because its popularity is growing like wildfire.

It’s Addictive

Satish Meena, senior forecast analyst at Forrester, estimates daily active users on TikTok to be around 25-30 million, much less than its rivals. But the average time spent on the app is increasing rapidly, he said, adding that Facebook’s video platform Watch has not seen that kind of traction.

“TikTok is just videos, it is more interactive, doesn’t require friend network; you download and keep scrolling,” Meena said. “That’s why we have seen adoption from first-time internet users.”

Since the entire barrier to the platform is literally nothing, it clicks with even those new to the internet, according to Kailas Karthikeyan, a New Delhi-based technology and policy analyst. “There is a great attraction for the rural user, but it could be wrong to say that it’s not an urban phenomenon.”

The video-only interface makes it easier to use compared to Facebook or Instagram. Just download the app and you are plunged into a sea of clips—robot dance, somersaults or people just making crazy faces.

“It’s entertaining,” said 20-year-old Haseen Ahmed, a mobile repair kiosk owner in Noida, surprised to know that the app is Chinese. “I don’t put up any videos, but usually pass my day scrolling the videos. It’s fun.”

Such users have made Anuraj Rajan, 35, popular. Funny videos, also featuring his wife and five-year-old son, on arguments in a family has won him 644,000 followers on TikTok. His wife who has a separate account is followed by 669,000 people. Rajan’s TikTok exploits helped him gain 60,000 Instagram followers and he created a YouTube page for sharing longer views. All that earns him Rs 80,000 a month, he said over the phone. “TikTok alone pays me about Rs 30,000 a month to make original videos.”

Anuraj Rajan's TikTok Page screenshot. 
Anuraj Rajan's TikTok Page screenshot. 

Political parties have also gauged the potential in an election year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party hasn’t officially joined but videos tagged #narendramodi and #BJP have received more than 34 million and 55 million views, respectively. The videos tagged #Rahul Gandhi and the #Congress got nearly 14 million and 16 million views.

Bollywood videos have more than 16 billion views, while dance clips have been seen over 39.5 billion times. But the trouble starts when users, in their pursuit to become stars, go to the extreme.

The Backlash

A man accidentally shot dead a 19-year-old friend in New Delhi while shooting a video for TikTok, multiple media reports said citing the police. A student was killed when he and two friends were filming a video riding a motorbike in Tamil Nadu in February. They lost balance and the two-wheeler crashed into a bus. There are also unfiltered obscene videos, at times using kids to recreate suggestive positions.

Earlier this month, the Madras High Court asked the central government to ban the application, voicing concerns over pornographic and inappropriate content. While the order was challenged, the Supreme Court declined a stay. The court named senior advocate Arvind Datar as an independent counsel to examine the implications of the app. The next hearing is on April 24.

India’s neighbour Bangladesh has already banned the app. Indonesia pulled if off last year but repealed the move later. TikTok was fined $5.7 million in the U.S. after it was found to have illegally collected personal information of children under 13.

Meena said regulating the content is the biggest challenge and the company should figure out a way to filter it. “Once the image takes a hit, users could also drop out. So a lot is riding on the image.”

TikTok, in an emailed response to BloombergQuint, said the company launched an age-gating feature at signup that blocks anyone under 13. Also, it said the reported content is reviewed and flagged on a real-time basis.

Users can self-define up to 30 keywords in English and Hindi that they would like to automatically filter out from the comment section, the spokesperson said. Since July 2018, the app has removed over six million videos that violated community guidelines.

Meena said banning the app is not the right way and, instead, the government should look at ways to define the rules of engagement. “It empowers people,” he said. “We have seen in China that such apps mature into talent-hunt platforms.”

Anagha and Rajan agree that some users may have misused the app, but said TikTok helps people showcase their creative side. “It started as a part-time activity,” said Rajan. “But with all the money and fame, I’m looking to do videos full-time.”