Knock, knock, say Helo to TikTok

Are TikTok and Helo the biggest changemakers in the social networking space or will the bubble eventually burst, asks Srivathsan Nadadhur

tiktok

The beauty of social media is that it keeps you on your toes and there’s always a surprise around the corner. It evolves at a breakneck pace, where trends become obsolete by the hour. If you have scrolled past your news feed on social networking platforms in the last few months, chances are high for it to have been spammed by a friend lip-syncing a popular dialogue or song, dancing to a music-bit from his/her favourite film.

TikTok, Helo and Musical.ly (now merged with TikTok) as social networking platforms have completely redefined the way one looks at the digital space and as a tool of communication.

 For the uninitiated, TikTok is an off-shoot of the Chinese technology firm Bytedance (whose digital presence is unparalleled at its home base) that has empowered user-generated content like no other.

 It has been solely responsible for making video a more feasible form of communication and like, most of its other social network counterparts, comes with a dangerously addictive quality.

Helo, a social media platform branching out from the same firm as TikTok, enables users to upload content of their choice, unhampered by the format, be it flashcards, GIFs, videos, quotes or music bits. It’s great at pampering a user to find content that matches their tastes, thanks to its effective algorithm.

What made it ‘Tik’?

TikTok as a lip-sync video-driven platform has made responses like emoticons and GIFs a thing of the past. The talent that its sister platform like Helo has unearthed has been equally humungous, helping a commoner turn an overnight digital sensation. Entertainment, communication, short duration of the video posts, adequate localisation (available in 15 Indian languages) have been the clear assets of these applications. And they have weathered many storms within a few months of their arrival and from what it seems, this wave isn’t here to subside anytime soon.

The biggest dent it has caused is for YouTube, which, not-so-long-ago, was considered the primary source for sharing and uploading videos. In spite of its well-organised interface, YouTube was probably too ‘official’ and ‘formal’ for a youngster to express himself/herself. It wasn’t exactly conducive for the short-video format either. And given the brief attention span of the average millennial, TikTok and Helo have done great homework in understanding the tastes of the young in keeping their video posts brief with attractive interface and options.

The numbers & the impact

If you are fond of stats, the numbers pretty much tell the story and even if you talk of impact, the story is no less fascinating.

TikTok’s largest market in the world happens to be India with over 200 million users (as reported during June 2019), closely followed by the US. Helo boasts of a monthly user-base of at least 40 million users (as reported in the first quarter of 2019) and is expected to grow three-fold by the end of this year.

Need more reasons to assert their popularity? The BJP has chosen a Haryana-based TikTok star Sonali Phogat (with over 1.6 lakh followers to her credit) for the Adampur constituency in the soon-to-be held state elections. Ranu Mandal, an elderly woman captured in a TikTok video singing Ek Pyaar Ka Nagma Hai at a railway platform, had landed an offer to sing for popular composer Himesh Reshamaiyya through a reality show within a month.

Creating a storm, literally

On the flip side, there have been a few tremors too claiming that the apps aren’t as innocent as they seem. TikTok was taken off Google Play and App Store in India, adhering to a ban by the federal government on April 16 earlier this year, citing that the platform exposes children to pornographic and inappropriate video content. Helo was asked to take down at least 11,000 supposedly doctored political ads preceding the Lok Sabha elections.

In July, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had asked TikTok and Helo to respond to nearly 24 questions (concerning its ‘anti-national’ content) and even threatened a ban, if the replies weren’t convincing enough. TikTok removed nearly 1,35,000 objectionable videos from its platform soon, after complaints from Indian users and legal channels. 

It didn’t end there. 11 outsourced employees from Khammam Municipal Corporation who were found singing, dancing and playing pranks in a TikTok video during duty were shifted to other departments with reduced wages after their posts went viral.

A similar fate was destined for a police constable Arpita Chaudhary in Gujarat, who faced suspension for her 15-second TikTok video, where she was dancing while lip-syncing to a Hindi song in the police station.

A constable in Ahmedabad, a junior officer in Vadodara too found themselves in trouble while filming their videos at work. Four nurses in Malkangiri (Odisha) were asked to take a temporary leave from duty for shooting a TikTok video in their hospital.

Not-so kid-friendly?

It’s clear that the apps have got the nation grooving to their tunes but it’s happening with an amplified risk too. TikTok, despite its restriction to ages from 12 and above, is full of kids, trying to dance and sing their way to fame, sometimes with provocative gestures.

Some of these videos have seen kids trying to simulate sexual acts, suggesting violence. In certain cases, a dead body was found in the video too. Body-image issues have become an element of concern. 

Bengaluru-born Manasa Jairam, a communication professional, believes that platforms like TikTok and Helo do more harm than good to technology enthusiasts. She says those who are enthused by such ideas are only here to seek “two minutes of fame”.

“Unlike other social media platforms, the issues aren’t quite new — people succumb to the pressure of coming up with a quirky video that would go viral. And the fact that a few, who haven’t got the response they had expected, have even committed suicide explains what a futile exercise this can be. Even children are provided unmonitored access to it and the dangers are quite obvious — perverse, sexual content could prove disastrous to their upbringing and in addition to the unrealistic beauty standards they set. By all means, the temporary ban was even justified,” she says.

Blame game

But, one must understand that these are universal concerns of any growing technology, and can’t be limited to applications like TikTok, Helo or Vimeo alone.

So, it may not be fair to put the entire blame on the latter because such apps are bound to disrupt an industry now and then. This vicious cycle may very likely continue with any other technology in the coming times as well.

A Quora thread opposing the brief ban on the app in India unleashed a wave of responses out of which a post saw a netizen pour his heart out, “We blame apps or something quite conveniently when some unforeseen incident happens. Any such app created for entertainment purposes should be used for just that. But to what extent one considers entertainment is something every individual needs to be self-aware of. Cutting hands, throats, doing deadly stunts on bikes, jumping from high rises, etc are essentially not entertainment.”

Addictions galore

Sunil Shetty, the founder of MyStartupTV portal and a mentor to several firms dealing within the tech-space, too says such technologies can’t be blamed merely for its addictive (read user-friendly) quality.

“If you talk about addiction, we are addicted to many things. People are addicted to cricket as they forget work. Young kids are playing PubG all day. When I look at TikTok, my biggest takeaway from the platform is the opportunity it provides to showcase one’s talent. Tell me one other outlet that fulfils your aspirational requirements that well?” he asks.

He was among those who found the TikTok ban unwarranted and insisted that a few regulations in the firm’s functioning could have been the need of the hour.

Worthy of a trial

The visual-medium is undoubtedly the ‘go-to’ thing today among youngsters — the popularity of Instagram, TikTok and Helo over Facebook and Twitter serving as proof.

The additional advantage presented by TikTok has been its ability to showcase the histrionic, creative talents of the user in the video. The exclusivity of the application for videos alone has been TikTok’s primary advantage too. 

Despite all the challenges it presents, it is fair to say that it has made the average-common man the hero again.

Regardless of their stature, the platform has certainly opened a door for them, facilitating a creative outlet and giving them an assured audience,
even if their videos don’t translate into career opportunities. “It can be a social cause in a way if done right,” Shetty insists.

Finding the elusive balance

Psychologically, the pattern in which social media affects a user has more or less been the same. They provide instant gratification (read ‘living in a bubble’) and make a user feel very important. 

They get personal, nasty and can even take a toll on one’s privacy. But, is there a solution ahead?

Dr Kavitha Gudipati, an organisational psychologist offers us an insight. “I feel they are platforms to express ourselves because fundamentally we believe we are the hero/heroine of our lives.”

TikTok, for instance, should be looked at as a light-hearted, fun application for expression, she says.

“We shouldn’t over analyse their problems. TikTok has opened the public to our bedrooms now and that has been the difference. Everybody has a mobile of their own. Everything on social media boils down to ‘balance’. It is like junk food and healthy food in our lives, both have their place and can co-exist. Everybody knows the problems, but there can be solutions too. More physical activity, letting the younger lot experience the little joys of life amid nature, appreciating music, travelling regularly, making sports an integral part of our routine can be an antidote to this,” Dr Kavitha exudes hope.

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