The Great War of TikTok

Updated: May 18, 2020

How it started and where will it go next?

Do you remember an app named Dubsmash? We could record videos with movie dialogues as the background. Though it was a German app, the company constantly said that India is one of the biggest markets for the app. Dubsmash caught my attention when around 2014/15 Lalu Prasad Yadav made a video in Narendra Modi’s voice.

After the launch, it was easy for them to grab attention in India. The answer lies in what we call today influencer marketing. They got all the movie stars to make videos and share it on other social media.

But we soon forgot about Dubsmash because something better came in, and this one generated more cringe content on the internet, literally.

But let’s look into how Dubsmash disappeared all of a sudden? Multiple reasons, firstly, the company was going through some crazy period because the core team wasn’t getting along. Secondly, there was no way to message/ comment on the app, when they launched a beta version of messaging on the app, it bombed. Thirdly, Dubsmash did not have music rights so they could not add songs to their app. Plus as a company they never knew how to make money from the app so that’s whole another scene. Dubsmash was also a victim of data breach by hackers, data of 600 million people was sold for $2000 on the darknet. But I personally feel the inability to innovate as the factor of Dubsmash’s failure.

There is a chance that it can bounce back in 2021 based on this article but I don't think it is going to happen.

When came to India around 2017/18 it came as a social media unlike Dubsmash. It was a clear alternative to Dubsmash. This also caught early attention of the masses because of the launch partnership with Ranbir Kapoor and by now the number of internet users and smartphones had substantially increased in India as well. The app was a decent hit even in the tier 2 and 3 cities. This was going great and I think they really did take the right decision by selling their company to Bytedance (TikTok’s parent company)

In the middle of all this, there was another app named Vine, it has a similar story to Dubsmash so let’s not get into that one.

TikTok, as today in 2020, some would say is the best thing ever and some would say it’s cringe content. I created a TikTok account around December 2019 and I would say there is a lot of active audience that is dedicatedly waiting for content to pop up on their screen. I crossed 10,000 followers in no time without putting selfie videos, which is the general myth about the platform. I just put up videos of my dog and that’s it, an active engaging audience right there for you. One of my videos got 5 million views and I did not expect it to do so well.

But all this organic reach is something similar to what Instagram was in the beginning years, in fact even YouTube. But today it is so difficult to get engagement on Instagram unless you have a decent following, and decent = 100,000 or more. People consume your content on Instagram but they do not hit the follow button.

Social Media uses a slot machine psychology to have its users hooked, or what we call in a Poker game, beginner’s luck.

Tristan Harris writes the below two paragraphs in his Medium Blog 'How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind?

If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

Does this effect really work on people? Yes. Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined. Relative to other kinds of gambling, people get ‘problematically involved’ with slot machines 3–4X faster according to NYU professor Natasha Dow Schull, author of Addiction by Design.

All these platforms are just looking for you to spend more and more time on the app, because only then the brands that pay money for advertisements on these platforms will get some eyeballs or conversions. The model is similar to newspaper or other media business, but in a newspaper you even curate the advertisements for the user and you curate each word that is put out, unlike leaving it to Artificial Intelligence in case of these apps.

Believe it or not, TikTok is a winner in the app race in terms of users in India. You see TikTok videos everywhere, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Email (Yes, a newsletter I am subscribed to, sent TikTok videos to watch this week)

466.8 million people have TikTok in their phones in India and more than 1 billion videos are being viewed on the app every day. These are some huge numbers.

But if you are an artist, should you open a TikTok account? An obvious mainstream answer would be YES DEFINITELY, but let’s rethink on this one.

As artists or any other creators, every time a new platform comes up we are supposed to make the most of it. We instantly enter the race because everyone else is doing it.

Let’s take example of Facebook, a lot of artists and creators invested so much time in building their Facebook page but all of a sudden in 2016 because of privacy issues #DeleteFacebook was trending around the world. Around the same time, Facebook made it’s policies for business pages very strict and would show your posts to your audience only if you do paid promotions on the page. Pages with 100,000+ likes on Facebook were getting engagement rate of 0.01% (that is 10 likes on an average on each post)

Creators and other business owners had no choice but to spend money on Facebook Ads every day, so we all moved to Instagram. But it is also owned by the same company, and around 2018 the Co-Founders of Instagram quit from their positions at Facebook. Around the same period, WhatsApp Co-Founders, the most popular messaging app which is also owned by Facebook, quit from their positions. Not only these, but several other top executives quit Facebook during this period majorly because of privacy and encryption issues. Cambridge Analytica scandal was the start of this downfall, there is also a documentary on Netflix, you can read about it on this article

The people who built these apps sold it to Facebook and realized this is not how it was supposed to be.

So does it make sense to put all our efforts into this new trending platform and then be cheated by it later?

I decided to speak to someone who is a well known creator on the TikTok platform, Ulhas Kamathe aka 'Chicken Leg Piece'

The below conversation was on a conference call few weeks back between me, Ulhas and his media manager

When did you start your TikTok account?

I created a TikTok account in 2018 and then I also created accounts on Instagram, YouTube etc

Did you plan to make such 'Chicken Leg Piece' video from the beginning?

No, not at all. I run a few gyms and restaurants in Mumbai. Initially I used to put some food and fitness videos almost for a year. In one of the food video I mentioned Chicken Leg Piece and it got a little viral. From there onwards I kept creating videos with 'Chicken Leg Piece'

How do you create these videos? Do you have a team?

I shoot it on my Iphone at home, my family shoots my videos sometimes or I keep my phone on a stand to shoot it myself but no professional team.

Now that you have a fan following, how do you decide what videos to shoot?

My kids usually decide what to post, every day before shooting they keep the lights ready and the background ready. But we do not pre-decide what to shoot, once we are at the table, we shoot what we feel and upload that. Sometimes my kids or wife suggest what to say in the video but it is very spontaneous.

After I crossed 1 million followers, the TikTok team from India and also from China suggested me few things while shooting and uploading the videos on the platform. They also support me and appreciate my videos.

Who cooks this Chicken Leg Piece?

It is usually my wife and if sometimes we want to cook a new dish, we find how to cook that on YouTube.

How has your life changed after being a TikTok star?

It has changed massively. I have a unique style and even before TikTok, I was known for my fashion sense and accessories.

Even if I have 4-5 cars, I travel by train only because Bombay has too much traffic, so when I am in local train people identify me. If one person takes a picture with me there will be more 40-50 people gathering around for selfies. But I never say no to anyone, because it is their love for me and I appreciate that.

After this conversation, I also spoke to his manager Amit where I asked him about how is influencer marketing working on TikTok, how often do you get brand deals, he couldn't share the exact figures as they are confidential but I can assume it might be one-fifth of Instagram Influencers. But all the money doesn't matter now because of COVID-19 effects on influencer marketing so I don't want to elaborate on the business side for creators.

After speaking to him, I now understand why it is also in a way beneficial for some people. Instagram is all classy and fancy, Facebook is too old, Twitter is Right vs Left, YouTube is too much of an effort, so what platform can be relevant to the Indian audience? TikTok offers great video editing tools and there is a wide range of music that is available on the platform to create videos.

Plus the availability of cheap data plans for tier 2 and tier 3 cities is one of the most significant reasons for the success of this app.

I was scrolling through the platform while writing this article and some of the below videos have a million views and are from rural India. The app offers a creative outlet for people who have not been actively creating content on the internet, and this is giving voice to the voiceless. TikTok connects people from all demo-graphs in India.

Apple and WHO also have their account on TikTok and in no time we will see major corporations coming onto the platform because it's number of users are increasing each day

The data clearly suggest that the world will be hooked to TikTok soon and brands will spend more money here, but something still doesn't feel right about TikTok.

The current political dynamics of Ban Chinese products and 'Vocal for Local' sentiment might lead this to another way. Especially when China is getting so much heat from around the world and when Indian Whatsapp groups and Twitter feed is filled with 'Made in India' products.

The TikTok conversation was at it's peak in the last few days when Carry Minati put a 'roast video'.

The 11 minute video which got 70 million views roasted popular Indian TikTok star Amir Siddiqui. The war got uglier when YouTube removed Carry Minati's video for violating it's "Terms of Service"

Technical Guruji came in support of Carry Minati in this war through his video which doesn't necessarily violate "Terms of Service" of YouTube.

#BanTiKTok has been trending for the fourth time in one month recently, and it has been trending always but app still remains in the game.

The last time when Madras High Court put a ban on TikTok over pornographic issues it was lifted back after few weeks.

In February 2019, the FTC in the U.S. fined TikTok $5.7 million for violating children’s privacy law (COPPA) and required the app to implement an age gate.

I cannot answer who will win the social media war but I can answer this question