Earlier this week, Deepak Ghubade, a 33-year-old sugarcane farmer and Tiktok performer from western India, set up a Whatsapp group comprising 15 “star Tiktokers.”
Two weeks had passed since the Indian government banned 59 Chinese-made apps, and Ghubade’s group made up of “some singers, some dancers” got together to brainstorm over how to proceed.
“The chatter is about which app to join,” he said over the phone from Maharashtra’s Beed district. “We have decided to wait another 15 days while each of us check out homegrown Indian apps that have come up. We decided that if we join another app, we should do so together” out of solidarity.
When a government ban froze Tiktok on his phone, he had 75,000 followers. For Ghubade, Tiktok had simply been an avenue to show off his love for acting and dance, which he performed in his videos set to Indian film songs. The fame he acquired was a welcome consequence.
In June 2019, Ghubade began posting videos of himself dancing and very quickly garnered 20,000 followers. But he was mocked by friends for his videos and deleted the app. “I really enjoyed it so I downloaded the app once more in September,” he said.
In early 2020, with 45,000 followers, he made a viral video on Tiktok which said: “I am dg_rocks and I invite you all to my field.” It became a mega Tiktok live event where thousands of Tiktokers from across his state of Maharashtra and elsewhere flocked to his farm. They showed up at 9 a.m., stayed till 5 p.m., and spent the day mingling, shooting videos, and posing for photographs. He had even organized food and refreshments.
“In that video, I said: ‘There are no stars or fans, everyone please show up’ and people came from everywhere. Even housewives who never leave their homes showed up,” he said. “Tiktok offered a lot to people—some became famous, some found work through it, but after the ban all this has disappeared.” Ghubade said he even had an offer to act in a short film and documentaries but those plans are now on the back burner.
Since the ban, Ghubade has downloaded seven or eight apps on his phone which offer a similar short video app experience. But even as a full-time farmer, Ghubade said, “Nowadays, I am very bored and spend hours on conference calls asking if there is any new app which we can try out. Even if a new ad pops up on Facebook, we are ready to try it out.” In an interview soon after the ban, Ghubade was confident there will be a homegrown Indian app that will give him the same experience as Tiktok. “So far, I haven’t found it!”
Tiktok has upwards of 200 million users in the country, and it had steadily become a part of daily Indian life. It provided its users a source of instant gratification, allowing viewers or performers a different virtual life. This isn’t to say that Tiktok India has been free of controversy. However, for influencers, making a video for Tiktok had become second nature, a void that multiple homegrown Indian apps are attempting to fill since the ban.
Soon after news of the ban broke, content creators began sharing their Youtube and Instagram handles to divert followers’ attention to other platforms. But for many content creators, life without the app they used every single day is described as simply “empty” and “lonely.”
In the weeks since the June 29 ban, homegrown Indian alternatives have seen a surge in their numbers. Roposo, a video-sharing social media platform which had 55 million users before the ban said that it raked in 75 million downloads in a week. With 500,000 new users an hour, the app expects to hit 100 million by the end of July. On July 4, it shot to the top spot on the Google Play Store across all categories, up from its ranking of 330 around two weeks earlier, according to Naveen Tewari, chief executive of InMobi which owns Roposo. He tweeted, “It’s been an amazing ride. Thank you India for all the love! We are working really hard to repay your trust in us.”
Servers hosting several other Indian apps were pushed to the brink as new sign-ups surged immediately after the ban. Another short-video platform, Chingari, has reaped more than 80 million downloads in the past few weeks and said it recorded 148 million video views on its platform in a single day. Box Engage, another short video app that markets itself as “discovering engaging videos Tiktok style” saw a surge in active users within a day of the ban. Instagram rolled out its short video platform Reels for Indian users on July 11, while several other players announced plans to launch their own equivalents.
Content creators continue to experiment across platforms as they figure out which platforms work best for their content and which mimic existing apps. A report in India-focused news platform Bloomberg Quint pointed out that Chingari’s interface is similar to social and content app Helo owned by Tiktok owner Bytedance in terms of icon arrangements and features. “When a Tiktoker comes to Chingari, we don’t want to make him learn a new user experience, learn the product again, we just want to give him the same experience he is used to,” Sumit Ghosh, co-founder of Chingari told Bloomberg Quint. “So user experience-wise, user onboarding-wise, creation-wise, they are going to do exactly what they are used to so it becomes very simple for them to migrate to our platform.”
Yet, it isn’t just users actively seeking out new apps. Platforms are also actively campaigning to woo users, said Gaurav Jain, a digital marketing executive in North India. His digital property “Indian Men’s Guide” hit 1 million followers on the day Tiktok was banned.
“Immediately after the ban, several platforms and some through middlemen, started getting in touch with creators asking ‘Do you want to get onboard since you were popular on Tiktok?’” he said. “I got a formal email asking if I wanted to get on board one of these platforms. In fact the sudden influx on these apps meant servers crashed and you couldn’t access features, connect, or even sign up.”
Jain said his life “felt empty” after the ban on Tiktok but he has been closely studying which way the crowd has moved since. “After Tiktok, people got really confused and some went to Chingari, others to Roposo. My own followers possibly split up between these apps so I won’t be able to get the kind of traction on any one platform,” he said. “This will happen for every creator, the kind of popularity and the kind of engagement they used to get on Tiktok is now split up across seven to eight apps.”
This market fragmentation may affect yet another dimension aside from the app-to-user relationship—the consideration of how to make platforms a space that brands will collaborate on.
“End of last year, someone from Tiktok India came down to our office and spoke to us about how brands can collaborate with Tiktok,” an advertising executive in Mumbai told TechNode. “The platform was recently reaching out to agencies and brands to look at ways to collaborate to make money on that front. This is definitely something that will be affected.”
Jain too spoke of a “creator marketplace” that was slowly taking shape on Tiktok. “Before the lockdown, I was in negotiation with a startup in the hospitality sector. They wanted me to make relatable content to use it for advertising material on Tiktok,” he said. “This was a great way to put creators in touch with brands in a transparent way.”
Sandeep Mertia, a doctoral candidate at NYU’s Media, Culture and Communication told TechNode that in his opinion there has not been a comparable precedent for this kind of app ban and large-scale user migration. “Apparently Roposo seems to be doing well for now, but it’s too early to say who will be the “winner.” If tomorrow [Indian telecommunications company] Jio launches a Tiktok-like app, nobody will be able to compete with their monopolistic power. The market is being actively re-made here instead of getting plugged into another app or platform,” he said.
While Ghubade seemed very taken by Tiktok’s “superior” filters, several content creators also spoke of how Indian apps lacked user-friendly interfaces, something they said they loved about Tiktok.
Scholars who study social media trends in India have been fascinated with the rise of Tiktok, a seemingly straightforward app that has appealed to millions of people without the need for text or prior experience to navigate the interface.
“In hindsight what we have learnt from Tiktok is that language has been one of the key barriers in terms of expansion of the internet, for the longest time. Tiktok is one of the few apps able to break away from that,” Mertia said. “In India, language is a core concern. Just as much as simplicity of use. On Tiktok it comes down to clicking one button, shooting from your phone, and circulating it. Unlike Twitter, here there are waves that are more expansive than celebrity or influencer-centered circulation.”
Mertia believes that if the ban on Tiktok was to be reversed, users would return. “There is something to be said about habitual use of social media and how digital habits are formed especially in nascent communities of usage where you cannot think of switching off allegiance and loyalty on how something looks and feels,” he said. Yet, in the absence of such a platform, homegrown apps will do well in the short-term, he said.
“There is… a highly publicized vacuum that is driven by national security under a ethno-nationalist regime which has specific stakes in how this should play out. Certain apps are positioning themselves as nationalist solutions,” he said. There is an organized campaign, he added, across social media platforms to garner support for these new apps. “Beyond the rip-offs to capture the 200 million Tiktok users, it would be interesting to see how others can envision something different or original for the ‘next billion users.’”
Correction: story was updated to reflect that it was Gaurav Jain’s digital marketing property “Indian Men’s Guide” which attracted 1 million users the day Tiktok was banned. An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated that it was a digital marketing agency.