TAC Special

The 15 second celebrities

Tiktok, the social media video sharing app has taken everyone by storm, especially the youth. Personally i feel it can be used as a great tool in cross-cultural and visual ethnographic studies however before that it is important to understand why this trend of creating and sharing short lip-sync, comedy, and talent videos, is spreading like wildfire.
|| Saumya Sharma

Created by Beijing Bytedance Technology Co, TikTok allows users to create and share short videos with special effects. It has become hugely popular in rural India, home to most of the country’s 1.3 billion people. The reason it is more popular in rural India is because it gives the users an opportunity to connect with the urban or semi-urban population and keep in touch with the latest trends. It is their ticket to break the isolation, which rural communities sometimes face for not evolving culturally at an equal pace as their modern society counterparts. This needs to be seen and recognised more amongst the youth. For a very simple reason that developing of person’s identity goes through a lot of contradictions at a young age in life, one is pulled between personal desires, social norms and emerging trends, especially amongst the peer group. The amount of competition as well as comparison of personalities and societies we are living in now (or perhaps we were always) the youth often gets blinded to social norms and as a result, resorts to the current trending stuff to stay in the game. According to app analytics firm Sensor Tower, Tiktok has been downloaded more than 240 million times in India.

Deep diving into understanding why Tiktok has become a cultural trend in India. I think tiktok (app’s name supposedly comes from the ticking of a clock) is a tangible time constrained expression (15 seconds of fame) of one’s subjective response to different sensations. For e.g, when a Tiktok user sees a new trending song, he or she experiences a sensory response, of seeing and hearing mostly, which further influences the cognitive thinking. Every user desires to be unique in their expression of Tiktok video, especially if they are mimicking or dancing on a content that already has widespread popularity. Piggybacking on something that is already famous, makes it easier to be recognised by the viewers of tiktok videos.

Subjective response in the case of tiktok users may appear confusing at times, the videos that young men and women perform have a certain emotion to it however the emotional, behavioural and cognitive reactions by Tiktok users is influenced by one’s personality and socio-cultural background. A user wants to show what the society at large is demanding for, in a way that they can best express. I think it is being stuck between the need for individualism and social validation. I would like to mention Carl Jung here, according to him the ego represents the conscious mind as it comprises the thoughts, memories, and emotions a person is aware of.

The ego is largely responsible for feelings of identity and continuity. With reference to Tiktok, continuity refers to the need of producing content continuously to feed one’s ego… after all more content you can generate, the longer you are remembered. This quick, short and easy way to fame is nothing less than digital Darwinism, where one needs to keep at pace with emerging trends and innovations in the field of social media and digital marketing. As Darwin’s basic theory focuses on reproducing better offsprings, Tiktok’s better videos are the ones which are more funny, creative or both. Often the content is not suitable for children or teenagers, which led to Madras High Court asking the central government to ban Chinese video app, saying it was “encouraging pornography”.

Indeed the app and it’s content makes the young users very vulnerable to predators and anti social elements. I asked a 22 year old young advocate, Sushant Singh about his views on the ban. He said, “I would say that it should be banned for many reasons including there is no filter for age groups. Hence, misleading children by showing such content. Also, free Internet is more like a gun for kids as they don’t know how to use it. As a result they are being abused by it without realizing. Addiction and India is in the top list of killing childhood and these apps are the reason.I would not be surprised if this generation will be participative in criminal activities as they are being competitive about more likes, views & subscription at the age they should be playing and studying. Such competition at this age creates negative mindset.”

What drives these young mind towards 15 seconds of fame? In his book “Interpretation of Cultures” Clifford Geertz talks about actor’s point of view as the most important and first point of contact in studying cultures. Here ACTOR refers to the NATIVES being studied in ethnographic research, from whom we gather as much verbal, visual and textual information as possible.

Sometimes the words or actions of these actors may fall in the category of Anthropology of Play or Anthropology of Drama. This representation and expression is very emic from the native’s POV. Now anyone viewing, observing, perhaps recording it, would understand, interpret & analyse it from an etic perspective.

Taking the dramaturgy aspects into the real life, we may realise that mostly we remember the face and the attitudes or expressions, not the context. As primates 80% of our understanding of the world comes from what we see and sensory response to it. All thanks to the visual cortex in each hemisphere of the brain, much of which is located in the Occipital lobe. Ofcourse, when a Tiktok performance is viewed, the audience is quickly reminded of the famous song or the dialogue, evoking a cognitive and maybe even emotional response. This job is done by the Hippocampus which is part of our brain structure, helping in the regulation of motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. Therefore, those watching may experience all or some of these responses to stimulus and end up themselves performing on the same or different song. Thus enabling a domino of sorts, until the song or dialogue becomes repetitive and off the charts.

Now if we replicate the idea of ‘actors point of view’ to the tiktok users, we will understand that it is this need of dramatization of culture (personal and social) as well as the need to be remembered by the society.

As quoted by Robin Pupneja, a 34 year old theatre actor and stand-up comedian, “I don’t use Tiktok however I feel it is a revolutionary app for people from all stratas of society to showcase their acting and comedy skills, to reach large masses of people, without investing much and getting fame. Also, what’s interesting is that people from so called lower rungs of our society are getting mainstream.”

Further I asked him, as a performer, how does he see the 15 seconds time limit? Is it enough to be recognised or evoke a response by the viewers?

To which Robin replied, “As a performer, if I do not make an impact in the first 15 seconds i also lose audience at times, their attention. First 15-20 seconds dictate the overall response. Then as a performer, one should present in such a way so its relatable.”

To get some perspective on the creative value of the content of Tiktok, I spoke to Sabyasachi Gupta, an advertising copywriter. He said, “As a medium, it is great. Very conversational. I would shy away from commenting on the Tiktok ads in India. But globally, it is quite a thing. Very creative. Very effective. Globally, that is. A way of saying that I don’t like most tik tok ads in India owing to poor aesthetic. I mean there is no harm in making videos presentable and the content, tight. But that’s just me.”

I probed further, “You call it conversational, do you think it is more of an expression stemming from the need of social recognition? I suppose this makes Tiktok very homogeneous in nature, a trait i suppose most advertisements aim for?”

To which he replied, “Yes, social presence helps. You would want your brand to be relevant to your target audience.”

I clarified, “So in this case, the brand becomes the tiktok performer?” Sabyasachi, “You can say that.”

I wanted to know if as a creative person, he has used Tiktok or ever considered using it. Sabyasachi said, “I haven’t had the scope yet to use tiktok for the brands I handle, as in India, there’s an image problem with it. Some brands think it is not so premium as a medium.”

I replied, “I think it can be a great qualitative research tool.”

Sabyasachi, “Oh, absolutely. I wish I had Tiktok as an account to handle. I would have tried solving that. And made it potent for Auto brands.”

“What would you have solved if you had Tiktok as a brand?”

Sabyasachi, “The fact that it is often not considered by many premium brands. It’s brand personality.”

“Yes, i agree brands can consider it for recording responses. It will be something like Fleabag.”

He added further, “But what is visible mostly is users finding a parallel space to express themselves, often by performing a hit song or an iconic Bollywood dialogue. Very friendly, a medium.

Provides lot of visual effects.”

I replied, “It reminds of Mukbang from South Korea and Hikikomori from Japan. All these phenomenons are about wanting isolation however still being recognised by the society for one’s individualism.”

Sabyasachi concluded, “Like Tiktok is at times, in India. Good medium. Attracts all kinds of users from different walks of life. So the content management must be difficult. They must have some guidelines/mandates, to check on the quality of content getting out.”

Taking inferences from the above two discussions in my understanding Tiktok is a great way of understanding complex human behaviour in different social contexts, helping a researcher to understand similarities and differences in personality as well as culture..something that influences buying patterns. Tiktok serves the need to maintain an individual identity and not being left out, considering the frequently changing digital and social media trends, whilst maintaining one’s position in the society, perhaps an inner call to be a part of the larger collective conscience.

Summing it all up with a quote from Paul Tillich, a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher -“Individualism is the self-affirmation of the individual self as individual self without regard to its participation in its world. As such it is the opposite of collectivism, the self affirmation of the self as part of a larger whole without regard to its character as an individual self.”

Saumya Sharma
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