TikTok’s got talent

October 4, 2020

TikTok creators, while having huge followings which are unprecedented for Pakistani individuals, are not taken seriously by mainstream media, the entertainment industry or critics

Usman Nadim,  Image courtesy: Facebook, YouTube.

To a lot of people, it may seem like TikTok gained overnight success, but the wheels were set in motion years ago. While the style was first introduced by Vine, and dozens of other apps followed the same short-form user-made video content – none garnered as much recognition as Tiktok.

Previously known as Music.ly, the app was not initially as popular as it became when rebranded as TikTok. Owned by the Chinese technology company ByteDance, it slowly made its way into the Western market and now stands as a serious global digital platform competitor.

The popularity of TikTok has soared in Pakistan as well with reportedly 22.5 million downloads of the app in the country, making it the most downloaded app in 2019. This means that creators on the platform also enjoy millions of followers and views.

A shortlist of the biggest TikTok creators in Pakistan is very diverse. Jannat Mirza, a young woman hailing from Faisalabad, and studying in Japan has 10 million followers and makes content which is mostly her lip-syncing dialogues or acting out snippets of songs.

Another TikTok creator Usman Nasim, a middle-aged man with a shar’i beard popularised as Famous Molvi, has 8.1 million followers and makes content around religion and societal values but also regularly partakes in popular trends on the app.

Tauqeer Abbas, popularly known as Phoollu, had worked as a daily wage labourer for a landlord in a village near Mandi Bahauddin. He now has almost 6 million followers and makes mostly comedic content in front of high rises in Dubai. He also produces original content about his life in his village.

While Jannat does fit the influencer aesthetic and demographic, you would not expect the other two to be as popular. And they possibly would not be on any platform apart from TikTok.

While having huge followings which are unprecedented for Pakistani individuals, TikTok creators are not taken seriously by mainstream media, the entertainment industry or critics. YouTube and Instagram content creators are considered greater influencers hence securing more paid-endorsements, even though their following is most likely not as large as a TikTok creator. Furthermore it is to be noted, that while Youtube and Instragram have built-in monetisation features for influencers, TikTok has yet to develop such a mechanism.

For example, Nadir Ali’s P4Pakao is one of the most subscribed YouTube channels in Pakistan. It has 3.2 million subscribers. Jannat Mirza has 10 million and she has not even been on TikTok for half as long as Nadir has been creating content for YouTube.

Why aren’t TikTok creators taken as seriously? And why is the term ‘TikToker’ used so disparagingly?

The platform and its creators played a key part in the government’s awareness efforts against Covid-19. Yet time and again, the same government dismisses the platform while fully understanding the power of its popularity.

Prime Minister Imran Khan recently commented on how “TikTok is spreading vulgarity” right after PTA’s repeated warnings of banning the app. Such negative comments by government officials and authorities contribute to people’s perception about the platform.

A lot of millennial netizens, from upper middle- and upper-class circles, who mostly consume content from Western influencers on YouTube, also tend to look down upon the app. According to TikTok creator Zebunnisa Chughtai, there is a general idea of the content on TikTok being “non-intellectual, ridiculous or embarrassing”, which leads to people dismissing the app.

However, the fact remains that TikTok is much more accessible because it only requires a phone and no professional camera equipment or know-how related to video editing programmes. While some may consider this as low effort and a reason to look down upon the content and its creators, it is also the reason why TikTok is used by those of lower socio-economic classes. It is the most accessible and cost-effective form of self-expression, as many TikTok creators and users in Pakistan are not from cities or from privilege.

TikTok has opened the doors for a larger population to express their individuality or creativity in video format; even with those who recreate videos of dance trends, add flairs of their own into the mix. No two videos will be exactly the same. You will see millionaires in America doing the same dance challenge as a daily labourer in a Pakistani village.

Maybe therein lies the problem. There is a lot of visibility on the app for not only those who reside in small towns but also those from the lower end of the socio-economic strata of society. Pakistani society has long been plagued with ‘othering’ those from a low-education, low-income stratum.

Think about how we treat those who work for us. Our house help mostly has separate eating utensils, they are asked to sit on the floor and subjected to other unfair behaviour. Thus, maybe seeing people from the same socio-economic status on the app having the same chance at being successful makes some people uncomfortable.

Phoollu and Jannat mirza. Image courtesy: Facebook, YouTube.

Where else would a daily wage labourer like Phoollu have the same chance at success as the son of a rich Faisalabadi family? While we might discriminate, the TikTok algorithm does not.

People are expressing themselves and their creativity on this app. People who did not have a platform before now have access to one and are creating content which clearly is resonating with millions of Pakistanis on the app. We always talk about how representation is important, yet when TikTok gives us exactly that, a large faction of society dismisses it by calling it “cringe, paindu and unoriginal”.

TikTok creators have a lot of social currency; they have millions of followers and a lot of influence. It is probably time to take them more seriously than we are right now because according to the definition of internet-celebrity - “[their] fame is primarily derived from their Internet presence” according to UrbanDictionary - in 2020 TikTokers definitely qualify.

The social capital of Pakistani TikTokers has already gone through the roof. Local meet-and-greets by TikTok creators draw hundreds of fans.

Some people are smart enough to already recognise the huge audience their names pull. One of them, Asim Azhar, had the foresight to feature TikToker Areeka Haq in his music video for the song Tum Tum which was a massive success, and had over five million views within three weeks of its release.

Meanwhile, TikTokers are well-aware of their influence and are already monetising their platforms with brand endorsements and other paid content. TikTok-US has also announced a $200 million creator fund and rumours of TikTok monetising the platform are rife.

The platform has successfully helped launch a lot of careers and honestly, it won’t be long before we hear about the first Pakistani millionaire from TikTok.

The author oscillates between journalism and her work at the FC College Cognitive Psychology Lab.

TikTok’s got talent