It'll Take More Than 15 Seconds to Rebuild Virality
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Five months after India's ban on TikTok, a slew of global and homegrown pretenders are struggling to enthuse viral stars and advertisers.
By Pallabi Munsi
- India’s ban on TikTok spawned a slew of video-sharing apps — some homegrown, others backed by global giants — to tap into the Chinese platform’s former largest market.
- But five months later, viral stars on TikTok are struggling to regain their fame and income with these new platforms.
- The newborn apps are battling for tiny slices of TikTok’s market, without the algorithmic sophistication of the Chinese platform. They’re struggling to attract advertisers.
Jesus Mehta was always fascinated by drums and wanted to learn how to play them. At age 16, when he asked his mother whether she could buy him a drum kit, she pointed out that their apartment in the western Indian city of Surat didn’t have enough space for the instrument. So Mehta started searching online: “How to learn drums without drums?” He came across the concept of beatboxing and started practicing on his own. Seven years later, by 2019, he would become a viral beatboxing star thanks to TikTok, the Chinese app where he first uploaded a video in January 2019.
He started getting calls from nearby cities to perform, got advertisers through TikTok asking him to promote their products on the platform and became set on a career in music despite a degree in engineering. What started as a hobby drew 2 million followers to his TikTok account and earned him a monthly income of $800–$900, roughly five times the national per capita income.
Then his 15 seconds of fame — and the income that came with it — came crashing down. On June 29, the Indian government banned TikTok and 59 other Chinese apps, citing national security issues amid tensions along the two countries’ disputed Himalayan border. Mehta, who says he’s making less than half of what he used and has taken up a teaching job, is not alone.
The ban on TikTok in India has spawned a slew of video-sharing apps such as Chingari, Mitron TV, Roposo, MX TakaTak, Zili, Moz, Snack Video, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts — some homegrown, others global — that are vying to take its place. That makes sense: India was TikTok’s largest market, generating 164.5 million downloads in the first half of 2020 across App Store and Google Play — that’s more than a quarter of global installs of the app during that period.
But while these newer apps have witnessed a surge in downloads over the past four months, they’re struggling to convince popular TikTokers that they’re as effective. Users and independent analysts point to algorithmic specificities that allow the Chinese app to direct a wider range of viewers to videos than any of the newborn rivals can promise. Because of its scale, TikTok also commanded the unrivaled attention of advertisers. Without all of that, popular TikTokers have been unable to regain their virality or revenue on these other platforms.
With the removal of TikTok, everything went away — followers, fame, income and offers.
Arman Rathod, a popular Indian TikToker
Take Arman Rathod from Valsad in the western state of Gujarat. He took to TikTok early this year during the pandemic-induced lockdown after losing his job as a car cleaner. He uploaded a video doing what he does best: dance. His May 15 video showing him dancing to a popular song filmed by Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan received 6 million views. In the days that followed, top Australian cricketer David Warner gave him a shout-out, posting about his “great work.” Advertisers reached out with offers to pay him if he promoted their products, and a television dance competition invited him for auditions. As with Mehta, that all changed with the ban.
“With the removal of TikTok, everything went away — followers, fame, income and offers,” he says, his tone pensive.
To be sure, the newer apps have benefited from TikTok’s absence. A report by Sensor Tower Store Intelligence, published in July this year, estimates that three of TikTok’s largest contenders in India — Roposo, Zili and Dubsmash — collectively saw first-time installs grow 155 percent in the three weeks after the ban on the Chinese app. Shivank Agarwal, co-founder and CEO of Mitron TV, another popular Indian video app, says the platform had witnessed more than 9 billion video views and over 35 million downloads by September — just five months after its launch.
But the crowded market of new platforms seeking to become the next TikTok is part of the problem for creatives, suggests Mehta. “There are so many such apps that I’m confused about which one to focus on.” TikTok’s algorithm was better than what the new apps have, he says. “Even if you weren’t following me [on TikTok], I would have come up on your feed even if you’re in some other part of the world.”
Pavel Naiya, a senior analyst at Counterpoint Research, an industry analytics firm, concurs. “The fundamental difference between TikTok and any other social media app is the user interface,” he says. “What you will notice with most social media apps is that you need to add or follow people, show the kind of content you like to gain content of your choice. TikTok removed those tedious steps.”
The upstart video apps haven’t reached that level of personalization — where the platform can track your behavior and direct you to the best global content you might therefore like — in part because they don’t have TikTok’s large user base, Naiya points out. And changing that will be hard in a fractured market, where multiple apps are all scrapping for a piece of TikTok’s fan base.
TikTok also broke through India’s tech divide. Where global giants like Amazon and Instagram have traditionally focused on the country’s big cities, TikTok drew most of its audience from Indians in the 18-35 age group, in smaller cities and towns.
Agarwal says Indian apps like Mitron TV can — like TikTok — bridge India’s rural-urban gulf, and he’s confident about getting advertisers on board. “We are already in conversation with brands,” he says. “So by the end of this year … we will have a ready market for the stars to make money.”
But if companies have to spend ad dollars across multiple platforms, each with a piece of TikTok’s former market, it’s unlikely any one app will be able to bring creatives like Mehta or Rathod the income they enjoyed until recently.
Some former TikTok stars are more hopeful than others and are preparing to shop their skills on several of the new apps. Mumbai-based freestyle soccer player Aarish Ansari was roped in by TikTok as a talent at the very beginning — when the app was just launching in India. “I had a head start,” he says. By the time the app was banned, he had 161,000 followers. Income from multiple video apps, he says, is helping him recoup the revenue he lost from advertisers on TikTok.
But scaling that up further will prove a challenge, unless TikTok pretenders also adopt the Chinese app’s algorithmic sophistication. Until then, for Mehta, Rathod and many others like them, it’s a bleak road ahead as they struggle to regain their fame and income.
- Pallabi Munsi, OZY Author Contact Pallabi Munsi