In May, after Carryminati released a video on his famous Youtube channel, the nature of a new social media application was considered and reconsidered. The Carryminati issue was seen to be symptomatic of an urban/rural divide in the conscious of India’s upper-middle class in the mainland (or urban India), and Carryminati’s homophobic comments revealed something of a class character inherent to social media itself, a conversation otherwise ignored whenever social media is discussed. But the question remains, whether an app that has to contend with the homophobia of its own users, and distaste from a liberal class of savvy internet users with their own tastes, can make room for queerness. Or is it just a game of thumbs of the who-reports-first variety, in a landscape of rigged algorithms, where there’s only one prize—content on the platform? Having drawn enough ire on online media, and only after the action of LGBTQ activists, Carryminati’s video was since deleted.
Tiktok, as a new contender on the landscape, the once-little bourgeoise, has been given a lot of media attention since its release. In 2018, Tiktok’s Chinese parent company acquired Musical.ly and merged it with Tiktok. With these origins, it has come under sinophobic attacks of conspiracy, like every other Chinese product, which may be linked to the country having become the manufacturing capital of cheaper consumer goods—taking up considerable battleground on the neoliberal reformed market. Tiktok has even been banned in India in 2019, which took place even before the interim ban that is currently in place. While it is not new for social media to be treated with suspicion, and even Instagram had once taken centre stage in the category of ‘public-menace’ for a long time (before Facebook bought it and businesses began to ingeniously advertise on the platform), the debate about the users and creators of the content on Tiktok has made visible a new mode of expression, and even dissent. But before we speculate on this dissent, a short history of the app and the new internet user in the country should be measured.
After the short-lived run of Vine, an app that began the trend of sharing content as short and loop-able videos, Tiktok emerged. Its user-friendly and video-based model allows for smooth usage without the necessary degree of Internet and English literacy, and is accessible by the wide user-base that was targeted by the rise of Reliance Jio, an internet service provider. If we take a look at the supply-chain of this model advanced by millionaire Mukesh Ambani (and other shareholders) we may find a history of big corporations, environmental disaster and political campaigns. Tiktok finds itself in this newly minted landscape. Which means that the rules for its users readying to create a social media presence are different (and not easier, as every single user of Twitter/Instagram will already know). Tiktok deals in fans, that is to say, it imitates a well-known narrative of rags to riches fantasy, stardom through Indian cinema. Users of Tiktok have their own cults of celebrity and reality contests, often rivalling that of regional cinema and even Bollywood. And Tiktok is aware of this, and has acquired music from T-series last year. On the flipside, Bollywood films are often promoted by popular Tiktok users.
This gives rise to the question of Tiktok’s seemingly non-discriminatory fan and user base, where same-sex couples from rural/semi-urban backgrounds, such as @appuseponnuse, @chinnamayil and @bongdevhalder are just as loved as Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma, with their own loyal fans and even copy-cat handles and pages. Gay and lesbian couples, without always explicitly labelling themselves as such, have garnered fans from everywhere. Individual content-creators too, have found non-normative expression as a mode of establishing their presence. To respond to this phenomenon, a common myth is perpetuated in liberal circles today, where the internet is alleged to provide democratic access to all, and that this access creates a more liberal and liberated society and civil order. However, this myth does not take into account that the internet is heavily controlled by the transnational corporations that have spawned them and the national bodies that moderate and use them, leading to users having to navigate this appearance of democratic access through landmines of market demand and surveillance. If this were not the case, Tiktok would not have banned pro-LGBT content in countries with policies limiting queerness, such as Turkey and concerns about child porn being peddled on the platform would not have been raised. If it is not that Tiktok has democratized the internet, then this dissent against and the subversion of the heterosexual order has to be understood differently.
Tiktok may be a space for subversive, non-normative and queer content as well as dissent, but the idea that Tiktok’s popularity can be accorded to a pop-culture from below, simply accessed and not mediated, does not stand scrutiny. However, its targeted user base (rural/semi-urban) has access to a format of sharing content that allows for novel modes of expression. On Tiktok, it is not necessary for the educated to bring the populace into the new liberal order, a culture of non-normative expression already exists. And because of the format of this app, the culture of this new mode of expression has been able to access an older tradition of film and the stage, both of which have always created a public sphere in the Indian context that is different from the West. Indian cinema, street plays, impersonators and mimicry artists have been stationed in the Indian imagination before social media took hold. Tiktok, because it allows music, dialogue, collages, etc in the form of short accessible videos, allows an access a popular culture that can be infinitely played with—through narrative and even against it—and hegemonic traditions can be parodied and subverted with just a glance. Queerness, after all, is not linear and neither is it a tradition unknown to India. Gender is performed, re-enacted, parodied on Tiktok by the populace that best understands Indian music, film, and theatre. As such, Tiktok mediates our access to an existing performative landscape, and gives it scope through the virality and algorithmic logic of social media content itself, where formulas for romance, comedy, fantasy and assimilation—all that heterosexual drama—can always be turned on its head in fifteen seconds.
However, the internet (if it ever was), now can no longer be an inherently radical or even free space for those who use it. The legions of market and surveillance continue to dictate the terms according to which it can be used, and no old nor new applications can protect us. And while Tiktok may have given us access to a public sphere of song and dance and parodic dissent we had begun to forget; access or symbolic protest can only do so much in a world that is wholly aesthetic and wholly violent.