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TikTok: We don't laugh at the material on the app, we mourn what we have lost in the process of becoming 'appropriate'

In the jaunty 90s I was born into, nobody – not even the ostentatious upstart across the street – had a computer to call one’s own. If at all, one greeted the dazzling device in two radically contrasting settings. You could meet the computer in school in air-conditioned ‘labs’ where your brief tryst with the fascinating object was policed, often too severely with the obligation to take your shoes off before entering the ‘lab', by assistants and teachers. Although they looked like they had far, far better things to do, one of them was keeping their audience enraptured with meaty instructions on working the beast – the keyboard is no keyboard, the mouse is no mouse, and can you tell the CPU and the RAM apart?

The second, and far more interesting setting, was the cyber-café where a date with the beast could be arranged at will and for as long as the pouch permitted. Here, men met communally, if not expectantly, to gossip, ‘surf’ the precincts of this thing called the internet, and to find in this dizzying assortment of sundry data useful material for instruction and fornication. Some revealed their objectives easily and some negotiated this thingamajig clandestinely – but all, and really all, approached it with an unmoved reverence and desires far-removed from chaste rectitude.

Little changed in the way of the heart, then, when the 2000s made the computer affordable for some of us and suddenly, saw the unattainable object of ‘labs’ and cyber-cafés consecrated in drawing rooms with an appropriate tilak here and there. I did not ‘own’ one until much later in the decade, and without losing a second of the opportunity towards social stature thereon, proceeded to create gaudy profiles on Gmail, Orkut, and the Yahoo! Messenger, to which Facebook and Twitter were added still later.

It is the Yahoo! Messenger that any 90s writer of and on TikTok remembers, for it was in its chatrooms, regardless of whether you ‘owned’ a webcam, that certain lessons about the social and the sexual were learned. It is where other ‘owners’ of the computer could be sighted and spoken to, where a man from Karol Bagh could ask your hand in marriage and then for your credit card details in the same conversation, and where about a million people of the subcontinent touched the internet for the first time and in being touched by the internet, made utter, arrant fools of themselves with uncharacteristic élan. Enamoured by the computer, the internet that flowed from its navel, and the uncertain technical modernity this could proffer, we were fledgling fools of liberalisation – fools, more importantly, happy to be fools.

 TikTok: We dont laugh at the material on the app, we mourn what we have lost in the process of becoming appropriate

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Perhaps this is only funny historical destiny, but over the many, many years that have marked and marred social media in India, this happy foolishness has been supplanted by a fanatical emphasis on the appropriate, where what is appropriate is always rational, always English-speaking, and always chaste. Having understood it, a meditative social theorist would say, you milk this modernity. It is easy to miss how pervasive this movement is, for it is contained not only in the appropriate court judgement that banned TikTok for the ‘obscene’ sexual behaviour dotting the application, but also the general remaking of social media as an exhausting pursuit of remaining appropriate, and, curse that word, trending.

Orkut was made with love. Facebook and Twitter are curated as a contest where words mean exactly what they mean. Instagram is an insipid world where every third person is a verified celebrity and every second an influencer. All men look the same, and obviously, all of them are in the gym. On all ‘apps’ of this age of the appropriate, individuals are half-hearted caricatures of themselves, either consuming so much information that anything means nothing or producing so much information that nothing means anything. Where have all the fools gone?

With an Indian population of well over 200 million – constituting one-third of its users globally – and a wildly infamous reputation that precedes it, TikTok can claim at least some of them. Developed by the Chinese giant ByteDance, TikTok allows, in the simplest of words, the ‘creation of short music videos’ setting the conundrums of lived reality to music, much of which is in the vernacular. This demure description, obviously, does not even begin to cut it, for the place is nuts. The most-followed Indian on Twitter is Narendra Modi. The most-followed Indian ‘personality’ on TikTok is Manjul Khattar who is, of course, no personality at all.

Twitter and Facebook often receive vignettes from TikTok with inordinate horror and disdainful amusement; in a world of selves made to measure, TikTok is rabidly creative. As a space where idiosyncrasy is a contest, nothing makes any sense at all. Here, fellow fools of India’s precarious modernity bring regional music, much of it avowedly crass, and even non-human or inanimate characters to bear upon not only their own joys and agonies but wider emotional dilemmas, far-removed from the sedate confines of Facebook and Twitter. This creates a performative ‘scene', if not a stolen story, whose emotional textures, even when inappropriate, are told unabashedly.

Nobody on TikTok has any time to be appropriate or reasonable because nothing ever is; this is the ultimate fate of theoretical ideals. On TikTok, the uncoupled weep and lovers — including when represented in the postmodern laboratory by entities like cats and spoons — romance, quarrel, and reconcile, often dramatically, as other sentiments, too, find a cathartic outlet laced with foolish, maudlin panache. That those other sentiments are sometimes, or more often than sometimes sexual, is nothing surprising, let alone illegible. It does not take TikTok to instruct us that the world of the appropriate expends too much effort in guiding desire when, in fact, desire is everywhere. And although much of the material on TikTok is created in pursuit of laughter, it is never the material one laughs at – when we laugh at TikTok, we laugh (as also mourn) at the selves we have lost in the course of becoming appropriate. As someone wrote of a very different context, respectability kills.

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Updated Date: May 01, 2019 09:39:14 IST