At first, people were repelled by the silly memes. Then, they got hooked on the bass drops, lip-syncs, and beauty and dating advice. Now, it’s being passionately discussed over dinner, in courtrooms, and even in parliament.
TikTok, the Chinese short-form video streaming app, has taken India by storm.
In just three years, the app has rapidly caught up with its social media rivals in India, amassing around 120 million monthly active users, according to the company. It’s taken more than a decade for Facebook to attract 240 million.
What’s behind the success? A combination of the right product arriving at the right time in a country that hosts the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing internet userbase.
“In a country like India, which worships cinema, the success of mediums like TikTok isn’t surprising,” Apaksh Gupta, CEO and founder of influencer marketing firm One Impression, says. “Anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can make a video of their own or watch videos on the move. This, amongst a series of other factors, has built India’s affinity for TikTok.”
This success has not come without challenges. The app has battled criticism over hosting videos containing violent, pornographic, and potentially criminal scenes. And last April, it was banned for two weeks by a high court for being “dangerous for children.”
India has become the testing ground for the app’s rocket-like growth in international markets.
TikTok, owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, arrived in India as the country was undergoing a digital revolution.
In 2016, the launch of Reliance Jio, a telecom company owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, triggered a pricing war that sharply reduced the country’s data rates. Even though data prices have slightly risen in India since they’re still among the cheapest in the world.
“If you had asked me five years back, if there would be a Chinese social media app that would become so dominating, I would have said no way,” said Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and chairman of Infosys, India’s second-largest IT company. Nilekani was speaking at a panel discussion led by Quartz at WEF’s India Economic Summit last October. Jio’s launch “completely changed the game, Nilekani explained. “Now, everyone can watch videos and can access the internet. Those who saw this shift, including TikTok, are able to capitalize on the same much better.
As of last August, the app had been downloaded onto a third of Indian smartphones, according to data from Delhi-based market intelligence firm KalaGato. Indians spend more time on the app than people from any other country outside China.
TikTok’s visual format helps it overcome a big barrier that social media apps have struggled with in India: language.
A majority of internet users in the country don’t speak English. This is even more true of people coming online from small cities and towns.
“Fundamentally, Facebook and Snapchat were originally designed for a western audience. That is not the case with TikTok,” says Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy project at Harvard Kennedy School. “TikTok offers something different, something simpler and perhaps even more elegant. I think that has resonated with many people in India.”
“On a human psychology level, it gave voice to these people who probably crave a celebrity status and to be in front of the camera,” explains Sowmya Iyer, founder and CEO of DVio Digital. Apps like Facebook and Snapchat were targeted more towards people living in metropolitan cities, whereas TikTok really caught the fascination of people living in smaller towns, Iyer says.
Sachin Sharma, TikTok’s director of sales and partnerships in India, told Mint last year that the app’s simplicity and ease of use have been critical to its success. “Despite varied ethnicity or language skills, users can still create high-quality content here,” Sharma said. “One doesn’t need access to studios or voice recording equipment to create content. Everything in the app is in-built and comes along with tools such as filters and backgrounds.”
Iyer adds that the use of hashtags has also proved interesting to Indian users, organizing content in a way that “helps you figure out challenges that are going on, jokes or formats that need to be repeated.” But fatalities that have resulted from the use of these hashtags have raised concerns about the pitfalls of letting TikTok grow without check.
On Feb. 18, India’s railway minister Piyush Goyal shared a video of a person falling from a moving train and almost getting crushed while shooting a TikTok video with friends (the video has since been taken down). It was the latest example of how users are putting their lives at risk in order to get a viral video on the app.
In July last year, a TikTok user from the eastern Indian state of Bihar died while trying to capture an extreme diving stunt in floodwater for the app. In September, two young men were run over by a train in Bengaluru while shooting a TikTok video.
Social media the world over is grappling with how to manage violent, offensive, and fake content on its platforms. But India poses a particular challenge, given the high numbers of users. That’s prompted Facebook to improve moderation tools, and it recently launched a campaign to promote digital literacy in India in an effort to improve online safety for women. Twitter also has multiple safety programs and keeps updating its policy to fight the proliferation of fake news in the country.
TikTok’s massive growth in India has made it a flashpoint, attracting concerns from lawmakers after a series of violent incidents and alleged crimes that took place during or shortly after a user posted a video. In April last year, the app was taken down from Google Playstore and Apple’s App Store after an Indian court ruled that it was encouraging pornography. The court lifted the ban after two weeks when the lawyer who was appointed to examine the effects of the app said banning it was not the solution, and that the rights of legitimate users need to be protected.
Critics argued for stronger moderation of videos containing offensive content. They also demanded that the company come up with more stringent guidelines on what can and cannot be posted on the app.
Tiktok has taken several steps to make its app safer for users in the wake of this criticism. The app now filters comments, has anti-bullying guidelines, and has integrated cVigil, an app developed by the Election Commission of India, for users to flag content that violates its code of conduct during elections. The company has also hired a public policy head in India.
The company also says that its guidelines are explicit about not allowing “content that encourages or promotes, dangerous behavior,” a TikTok spokesperson told Quartz. “Such videos that violate our community guidelines continue to be taken down from the platform.”
For Iyer of DVio Digital, these steps indicate TikTok’s willingness to “get into the good books of the Indian authorities.”
Notably, ByteDance is reportedly exploring an alliance with Facebook, Google, and Twitter to control the spread of fake news and hate speech in India, a move that coincides with the government ramping up its demands of online platforms.
Bytedance has been working overtime to rebuild its image, not just with authorities, but with users as well.
It has run popular campaigns on TikTok promoting education (#EduTok), “plogging”—or jogging while picking up litter—(#IAmLessPlastic), family planning (#CoolNotFool), and an end to violence against women and girls (#KaunsiBadiBaatHai).
Last April, ahead of the Indian general elections, TikTok began displaying a public-service announcement to its users when they searched for politically relevant hashtags. A month later, the app launched two new safety features: improved notification controls, and a device management tool to prevent hacks. It also launched an in-app quiz to teach users security practices like password safety and how to identify phishing attempts and scam websites.
Bytedance has also offered to set up a local data center to store the information of Indian users of TikTok and Helo, another social networking service it owns. Currently, Indian users’ data are stored on servers in Singapore and the US. The company does not yet have an update on this plan.
“TikTok has demonstrated commitment at three different levels,” says Ami Shah, co-founder of Mumbai-based social media marketing firm IntelliAssist. “Firstly, their plan to set up a data center set-up indicates that India is a big market for them. Secondly, although they have stayed away from politics, they have launched several campaigns that drive social awareness. Lastly, they have created several checkpoints to ensure content safety and suitably for its consumers.”
While the company’s attempts seem promising, its success in the long-run depends on how effective these steps prove to be, and how well it can work with the Indian authorities. “The devil will be in the details of its engagement with the government,” says Harvard University’s Ghosh.
Until then, Indians will keep the party going on their favorite social media app.