City City Bang Bang, Columns

TikTok: Leave them kids alone

TikTok has survived its legal challenge and continues to engage the rapt attention of millions of young Indians. This is a platform that needs to be understood, for its improbable influence, its potential cultural effect, as well for the kind of anxieties that it is clearly evoking.

The idea of a platform that allows people to share 15 second videos of themselves is on the face of it, hardly revolutionary. People have had the ability do this in other platforms for a long time, and moreover, a 15 second video slice does not appear to offer too much leeway by way of self-expression. But it is precisely this apparent constraint makes TikTok such an attractive format. TikTok is an innovation in form; by drawing a fixed boundary in terms of time, a particular mode of self-expression has been enabled. Like Twitter did with its 140-character limit in its earlier days, the act of a time-encased format is that it becomes an art form of sorts, or at the very least an artefact of popular culture.

The result is a space that radiates playful innocence and an unmistakable sense of joy. People from across the age and class spectrum are performing impressively choreographed dances, doing stunts, miming to songs, enacting little skits, playing pranks or simply doing something weird that inexplicably catches the fancy of a few million watchers. The platform is full of innocent self-representation using cultural material that is at their ready disposal, creating a form of popular culture that is organic. Interestingly, songs that are popular on TikTok are quite eclectic and not entirely predictable. They encompass a few currently popular Hindi/Punjabi hits, many catchy regional songs and a few relatively obscure old melodies.

The power of this platform comes from the fact that it takes the idea of talent and slices it very thinly. The idea of talent is otherwise a daunting one, for it requires both inherent ability as well as its dedicated honing. TikTok provides freedom from such an elaborate idea of talent. This is a fame-lottery with a very low entry cost and the incentive to take a chance is very high.

Flipping through TikTok videos is one of those pleasures that is difficult to explain, but it is undeniably addictive. It is impossible not to marvel at the kind of creative energy that is on display. What is striking is the self-confidence of the performers, and their total lack of diffidence about either their talent or the modesty of their circumstances. TikTok allows them to distil whatever they believe is most marketable about themselves. There are those that have mastered the form, and are able to churn out many videos that chalk up an impressive number of views and then there are others considerably less gifted, but often quite riveting to watch. And while many users are predictably attractive and talented performers, there is a reasonable diversity in terms of what can become popular. There are thoroughly atypical video of improbable people doing remarkably silly and trivial things that become all the rage. TikTok is not the bastion of the kind of surface slickness that we otherwise see around us. In its silliness, inspired and otherwise, it is a window to something much more real.

The reaction against TikTok needs to be examined. Why should such a seemingly harmless form attract such anger? It is true that it does engage the mesmerised attention of its audience and that can render them even more zombie-like than is otherwise the case, but really this is a lost battle. The mobile phone has already won, TikTok or not, and glazed watching is a national pastime. There is also a measure of elitism at work here. The kind of material generated on the platform is looked down upon because of its unrefined nature. But this is in fact the reason why it must be celebrated for we are hearing voices from those that have never been heard before.

The articulated fear, that of indecent representations and of the presence of sexual predators particularly involving minors is a legitimate concern. However, there is nothing specific to this platform that should make it more susceptible to misuse than any other and the same standards of regulation and monitoring should apply. There is of course, a great double standard at work here. We don’t ban the archetypal Bhojpuri film, television channels screen films with double meaning dialogues, other social media sites have explicit content that is freely accessible. When adults are allowed the same room for self-expression, they spew venom on Twitter, when the young get the same freedom, they dance to songs.

The real objection seems to originate elsewhere. It is to the creation of content by the young, it lies in the perceived loss of control felt by an older generation. In the physical world, the young, particularly if they happen to be female, live in tightly regulated spaces. By encouraging not mere presence, but also performances for public consumption, there is a great sense of providing licence that does not heed any boundaries. But whatever the merits of these fears, this is simply the new reality of the digital world that has to be lived with- if people can broadcast themselves to the world, they will. Banning TikTok will simply mean that another platform will be used.

TikTok is part of a dynamic new force that needs to be harnessed, rather than fought. It is part of a larger mushrooming of creativity that we see among the young all across the country. It represents that the young will find joy in forms of self-expression that do not depend on running other people down. There is far too much toxicity in the digital world; let us celebrate the few spaces that remain free of it. The adults can continue to wallow in the sewer of their own creation called Twitter, let the young play on TikTok.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*