The first thing that struck me was their voices. You see, unbeknownst to them, I had been watching them for a few days now but had rarely heard them speak.
I’d seen them move through their bedrooms and homes, colleges, favourite restaurants and malls. I had watched them at different times during the day as I pleased. They did whatever I wished for them to do — or rather, they learned to do so.
First, I had to learn what I liked and slowly they gleaned this information and began to perform for me, shapeshifting to fit the contours of my wants. I could get what I wanted from them at any time and I could dismiss those who did not meet my needs. It was the most selfish I had been able to be for a long time.
A popular social media app has taken the world of millions of young Pakistanis by storm. It gives many of them, especially those usually shut out of mainstream media, a platform to express themselves. But more importantly, it offers them a chance to be seen
Where was I? On TikTok, of course. A video-sharing social media app, TikTok allows creators — or, ‘musers’, as most Pakistani TikTok-ers call themselves, shorthand for ‘one who amuses you’ — to make short videos lip-syncing to songs, dialogue from movies and TV shows, or performing something original.
The videos are so short, in fact, that you could have watched an entire TikTok creation in the time it took you to get to the end of this sentence.
I knew about TikTok for some time, regarding it from a distance with confusion. I had only heard bad things: it was addictive; it was probably killing our attention spans. TikTok, I thought, is where you headed when you wanted to watch a video of a man, dressed in a T-shirt and shalwar, clutching two struggling roosters in his hands, imitate Imran Khan’s speech about giving chickens to women in rural areas.
Or if you wanted to see a group of men coax their friend to lie on a bedsheet and then, grasping each corner, catapult him into the air and laugh as he hit the ground. It was also the place to see a boy backflip from the roof of his car in perfect time with an airplane passing overhead so it looks like he touches it, or if you wanted to know what PIA air hostesses do to kill time at work.
TikTok was also the platform where, just this month, a user named Hareem Shah stirred outrage when she filmed herself inside the Foreign Office conference room, lounging on a chair reserved for the prime minister, as Bollywood songs played.
The product of a China-based company ByteDance, TikTok was released outside China in 2017 and has grown rapidly, with 546 million global users in 2019 and more monthly users than Twitter or Snapchat. The app’s fast growth can be attributed, in part, to its design: it is built to reel you in.
Put simply, TikTok utilises artificial intelligence to figure out what you love and then feeds you that via an endless scroll of videos tailored to your taste.
I downloaded TikTok this month and for 10 days, watched hundreds of 15- to 60-second videos to understand the app’s popularity. I spoke with creators whose videos I was curious about, and every time I’d call one to line up an interview, I was taken aback when I heard their voices.
I had spent days with an intimate view of their face, just arm’s length away, as they used their phone’s camera in selfie mode to film themselves. I knew their expressions, I’d seen them sad or joyful or angry. At some point though, I forgot that I had not actually seen any of this — they were mimes and the sadness, joy or anger they expressed vanished once that 15-second video ended.
ByteDance is quickly moving into Facebook’s territory — virtual and real — opening an office in Silicon Valley and poaching Facebook employees to manage its growth. The app increasingly has our attention and is favoured by the young, usually teenagers or those in their early twenties.
Some creators have reaped great benefits. If you or (more likely) your child got hooked on this year’s hit ‘Old Town Road’, for instance, you have TikTok to blame. American rapper Lil Nas X released the song in December 2018, then uploaded it to TikTok where it became wildly popular as the soundtrack to a trending skit.
It played as a person (or cat or dog) drank “yee yee juice” and transformed into a cowboy. If this sounds bewildering, keep in mind that describing a TikTok video rarely captures its fizz.
When you open the app, your phone’s clock at the top of the screen disappears and two tabs appear — ‘Discover’, where you see trending videos or hashtags, and ‘For You’, where, before you know it, you’ve spent an hour watching videos in categories that the app has learned you like.
I was used to the format of discovery on Twitter or Facebook, where I stumbled upon viral videos. But if I had to search for these myself, what would I seek? I started with the usual suspects: dogs, pop songs, political figures.
Watching a video of Imran Khan, I spotted the hashtag #geonews. I landed on what is now my favourite TikTok category: parodies of the news. Many of these videos have spilled over on to Twitter and you might have seen 15-second clips of men in villages pretending to be Prime Minister Imran Khan receiving Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman at Nur Khan Airbase, leading the prince away on a bullock cart to the tune of the Geo News headline about the royal visit.
The more time I spent on TikTok, the more it appealed to me. This app does not need me to keep up with someone’s life updates, there is no opportunity to feel jealous looking at vacation photos, I don’t need to remember anyone’s birthday or watch their baby smear food on its face.
The app doesn’t care how large my social network is, who I know or whether my thoughts get retweeted. The only thing the app seems to care about and want to give me more of is whatever makes me feel good. This is not social media; this is purely personal.
But while TikTok differs from other social media apps in this way, it has made headlines for reasons tech companies routinely find themselves in the news for. This year, ByteDance was accused of removing TikTok videos on the protests in Hong Kong.
A popular karaoke app called Musical.ly, bought by ByteDance and subsumed into TikTok in 2018, was found to be illegally collecting the names, photographs and other data of minors. Closer to home, TikTok has been accused of ignoring hate speech by Indian users and four members of parliament have called for a ban.
There have even been ‘TikTok murders’, most recently in Tamil Nadu in August, when a video calling Dalits “dogs” and “lowlifes” went viral. One of the creators strangled the other shortly after, after an argument about whose idea it had been to make the video.
At a time when we binge-watch TV shows online, the app gives us entertainment as we have grown to like it — a steady, uninterrupted stream, but at a frenetic pace where we’re eager to see if the next video will outdo the last in showing us something new, something surprising, something even funnier.
That, says 27-year-old lawyer Nadeem Sarwar, is the problem. Sarwar filed a petition calling for a ban on TikTok in the Lahore High Court in August, after some parents in his neighbourhood complained about their children wasting time watching or making TikTok videos. Sarwar installed the app and was horrified.
“There’s little difference between some of these videos and pornography,” he tells me. “I saw one video where a woman was breastfeeding her baby. Even if you watch these videos alone at home, you feel so ashamed. In India, there may not be restrictions on dancing or wearing revealing clothes, but even they are calling for a ban. This is an Islamic society and we’re allowing it?”
Sarwar says winning in the LHC isn’t his goal. “We need greater controls and standards so we can monitor what people are doing on TikTok,” he explains. “I knew that my petition would get media attention. I hoped that parents would then find out what their children are doing on the app.”
There are two common responses to TikTok by those who aren’t on the app. Some are confused or put off while others dismiss it as a waste of time. The latter say that TikTok creators are “farigh [useless]”. They sneer at someone who would be so honest about wanting attention.
“You think you’ve become famous. Dimagh kharab ho jaata hai [You lose your mind],” says Sarwar.
But whether Sarwar likes it or not, the app’s popularity shows no signs of slowing down. TikTok is user-friendly and because it’s all about videos, there’s little to no language barrier. All you need is a phone connected to the internet.
As a result, we’re seeing thousands of videos from people across the country, from those who have never uploaded a photograph of an artfully arranged salad at a fancy restaurant, or those who may never even have been to a restaurant. Some people don’t like that. They say TikTok is now “too awaami [plebeian]” — why should they have to share virtual space with a villager who shovels manure for a living?
While we have been quick to dismiss TikTok as “just for fun”, I found that those who are on the app are very aware that it offers them access to an audience far more than any other social media platform — so who gets to have a voice here and what can they use it for?
27-year-old Tauqeer Abbas aka Phoollu lives in Dhok Shahani, a town close to Mandi Bahauddin and has six children. For seven years he worked for a zamindar [landlord], earning around 600 rupees per day. A year ago, his friend Abdul Manan asked Phoollu to pretend to sing a song on camera.
“I watched TikTok videos of this Indian boy Israil Ansari and when I saw him dance and act funny, I thought Phoollu could do just that,” Manan says. “He’s such a saada sa banda [simple guy] and he doesn’t get nervous in front of the camera, so I thought there was nothing to lose. At most, he might become famous like Israil.”
Phoollu was taking a break from work when he stood in front of the trough that he filled every day for the goats, his brown kurta soaked in sweat, and mimed lyrics. He wasn’t even on Facebook. He could not read or write.
Phoollu tried all sorts of videos: he sat on a donkey, held a mic and lip-synced to a love song, wore neon green sunglasses and did a funny dance. “This was just a way to have fun,” he says.
One day, he made a video of his son singing a naat. It hit 1.2 million views. When Phoollu was being himself — no singing, no movie dialogue — or sharing snippets from his life, people seemed to love it.
When he made videos in the fields, filmed himself hauling bags of cement or threshing grain, his followers started increasing. Sometimes, when he was busy and couldn’t make videos, his followers noticed.
“Tension nahi leni [Don’t worry],” he assured them in a video. “Gandum kaat raha hoon issi liye mein video nahin bana raha [I can’t make a video because I am cutting wheat].”
Manan, now appointed as his ‘manager’, decided that Phoollu needed a signature phrase. He told him to open his videos with, “Assalam-o-alaikum, sisters and brothers.” Phoollu pronounced it “sistron” and “blathers”. His viewers loved that.
“At first, pind ke log [people from the village] would make fun of me, but then people from Mandi Bahauddin or friends of my zamindar wanted to be in videos with me,” Phoollu says. Phoollu and Manan would make videos in front of the visitors’ cars and motorbikes. In September, Phoollu starred in a music video for a song called ‘Mehran Gaddi’.
He travelled to Islamabad, wore a midnight-blue sherwani made by a supporter who owns a fabric shop, and opened with his signature greeting. “Aao gaanay ko lister kartay hain [Come let’s lister to the song],” he said, mispronouncing ‘listen’. One of the singers gave him a ring light as a gift so he could start making videos with better lighting. He won his mobile phone in a TikTok competition run by a local shop.
While he gets many encouraging comments — “These guys work so hard and the food we eat comes from their fields,” wrote one viewer — Phoollu knows many people watch his videos to make fun of him.
“I am paindu aur mein furr furr se English nahin bolta [I am a bumpkin and I do not speak fluent English],” he says. “But I’m showing you how we live, the food we eat and the work we do. Whether I’m cleaning hides or feeding cows or making videos, I’ll take whatever work I get.”
Phoollu has attended two meet-and-greet events for fans in Islamabad and Jhelum, making up to 15,000 rupees for an appearance. Manan wants to pivot on to YouTube, where they can monetise the videos.
“He has more than a million followers now, so we won’t do meet-and-greets unless they pay at least 30,000 rupees,” Manan says. He had a passport hastily made for Phoollu and, this week, they flew to Dubai on a paid trip to do meet-and-greets.
I asked Phoollu if his children watched his videos. “Never!” he responds. “I don’t give them my phone. They’ll get into this kind of stuff and I want them to study.” Besides, Manan says, Phoollu’s daughters would never get on TikTok.
“Taubah karein [God forbid!],” he says. “No woman in our village watches TikTok. If she did, then people would…” he trails off. “Well you can imagine what they would do to her.”
Arsalan aka Sonu is a 22-year-old from Quetta. He lives in Karachi where, he tells me, he doesn’t do very much. He tried modelling, but then quit because he “didn’t want to be bound anywhere.” Besides, he says, “I have my whole life ahead of me to work.”
Sonu’s dream was always to have all of Pakistan know his name. Now, he says, he can’t step out of his house to buy bread without someone recognising him from TikTok and asking for a selfie.
Sonu’s long mane is streaked with caramel highlights and he specialises in romantic videos where he plays a jilted lover. Face filters redden his eyes, as if he has been crying. He lip-syncs to songs about lost love. In one, for instance, he wipes away tears and trembles with emotion as he lip-syncs: “Roz mein gham se larrta rehta, gham phir bhi na haaray [I fight grief every day, but the grief is still unbeatable].”
His followers love it. “You look like my ex,” commented one woman. But it’s not the comments or the recognition that make him feel like he’s a success. His proudest moment came when a girl he liked discovered how popular he was on the app.
“I used to message her all the time and never got a reply,” he says. “One day, I stopped. I prayed for a day when I could get to ignore her.” He received a phone call from her recently.
“It’s me,” the girl said. “Mein wohi larrki hoon [I am that girl].”
“Haan [Yes],” Sonu replied. “Magar mein wohi larrka na raha [But I am no longer that boy].”
He hung up on her. “That’s the day when I felt like I’d truly won,” he tells me.
Sonu became enamoured by a woman he spotted on TikTok and, one day, he was added to a WhatsApp group of TikTok creators that she was also on. They began chatting privately and Sonu’s family then sent a rishta [proposal]. Her family had one objection: why did Sonu make videos with girls?
So now, even if a fan asks for a video at a meet-and-greet, he refuses. “I just tell them, ‘prime minister ka order aya hai [the prime minister has issued orders] that I can’t do this anymore or TikTok will be banned’.”
Romaisa, 19, is a university student in Karachi and Janice, 21, studies in Lahore. They became friends through TikTok and they comment on each other’s videos, give shout-outs or hit back at trolls together. Romaisa’s father, Tanveer Akhtar Khan, was a stage actor for 30 years before he passed away.
Romaisa made videos on the karaoke app Musical.ly and he would show them to nurses in the hospital where he received treatment for cancer. He saw that she had a natural talent for acting — in the eighth grade, she wrote a play, directed it and played the role of four characters.
Romaisa’s TikTok account used to be private until she realised that she could link it to her Instagram account. Once she went public, her Instagram followers jumped to 232,000. This was important to companies who hired her for paid content and soon she landed roles in ads for Ufone and Sooper biscuits, did a fashion video for Al Karam and an Instagram story for Pepsi.
But Romaisa does few meet-and-greets after an experience where girls who lip-synced to songs or did a few moves onstage at these events were filmed and then trolled on social media by men who called them vulgar. She can make up to 40,000 rupees at these events, but now she won’t settle for less than 90,000 rupees.
Many girls on TikTok, Romaisa and Janice say, think that they need to have a certain look to get noticed. They emulate Areeka Haq, a doll-faced young woman crowned ‘the Queen of TikTok’ with 2.7 million followers.
Often, Janice’s followers advise her to use whitening creams and call her “kaali [dark-skinned]”. A major telecom company approached her for an ad, but then said they wanted a fairer model. “I guess they think dark-skinned girls don’t use their SIMs,” Janice says.
She loves doing transformation or makeover videos, where make-up and face filters are used to turn an ordinary person, usually a girl- or boy-next-door, into a vamp or a goth or a heartbreaker with the snap of their fingers.
“I work really hard on those because they tell people that you can judge a person but then, in an instant, they can become someone totally different.”
Commenters often tell both women to put on a dupatta or have some sharam [shame]. When one man commented on Romaisa’s video to ask why her parents allowed her to make videos, her mother, who is on TikTok, replied: “I’m right here. Come ask me whatever you want.”
Janice often gets questions about her religion. She replies to these comments, but then is inevitably told, “Muslim ban jao, azaab se bach lo [Become a Muslim and avoid eternal damnation].”
Janice and Romaisa see TikTok as a way to break into an entertainment industry that isn’t too welcoming of newcomers and lacks the organised structure of Bollywood and Hollywood. “You need to get noticed online, be seen as a public figure there and it might translate into work opportunities,” says Janice.
Janice has learned to be wary of some of these opportunities though. Once, when she arrived at a shoot, ostensibly for a high-fashion brand, the men instead asked her, “Do you do bold shoots?”
Tahir is an 18-year-old living in Islamabad. He is four years into a nine-year aalim, or theology, course. For some time, he and his friends would make videos and post them to a group account called Qadri96. They copied trending videos or whatever they found funny.
Tahir liked that TikTok got them more attention than platforms like Facebook. Then one day, he had a realisation. “My field and the work I want to do is on the Islamic side,” he explains. “I didn’t want those videos to become a problem for me if I became known.”
As a child, Tahir performed naats and he had been scheduled to record an album of devotional music. The plan fell through when he had an accident. Now, he says, TikTok allows him to “lip-sing” naats until he can get inside a studio.
He usually uploads them on a Friday, when many users seek them out and gets higher view counts during months like Muharram. A friend gave him a ring light as a gift, so he now polishes up his videos to make them more professional or records them in front of scenic spots like Faisal Mosque.
Tahir likes to pay tribute to his former teacher, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, lip-syncing to some of his speeches. After he noticed that there were some Ahmadis on TikTok, Tahir was infuriated. He made videos set to songs calling for Ahmadis to be beheaded, promising vengeance for their beliefs.
“Shuroo se Qadiyani ke liye meray dil mein nafrat hai [There has been hatred against Ahmadis in my heart from the start],” he explains. “There’s a lot of vulgarity that’s accepted on TikTok, but I could not tolerate the fact that Qadiyanis were there too. I hope that my naats, and the naats of thousands like me, can eventually drown out their words.”
I asked Tahir how he felt about women making videos on TikTok.
“Islam tells us that aurat ki awaz baahir nahin jaani chahiye [a woman’s voice should not leave the house],” he says. “But there are some women who perform naats beautifully. They should be allowed to. Perhaps some women will see their video and like their hijab or what they are saying and it will bring them on to the right path.”
One Sunday evening, I went to Karachi’s Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Park, a favourite spot for many TikTok users. They congregate here or on the Frere Hall grounds, looking for a chance to get out of their homes, meet their friends or others who like making videos. The park stinks: at its centre lies a body of water that overflows with sewage, broken shoes, furniture and plastic bags.
But in the patches of grass around the gently lapping waste, knots of men stood around a phone examining videos they had made, or they posed for friends who filmed them patiently, doing retakes any time they missed a word or a cue in whatever they were lip-syncing to.
They paid no heed to the stench or the broken stone benches around them; they moved their bodies freely and chose filters that cast them in the warm hues of a sunset, swimming in the stream of people’s attention.
They held their phones aloft and, through that oblong screen, tried to move from that park into another space — a place where no matter how rich or poor you are, whether you are making videos in a beautiful home or in a dirty public park, you are the same as everyone else, because the thing you all want is the same. And it’s just one red heart-shaped emoji away.
Sanam Maher is the author of ‘The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch’. *She tweets @SanamMKhi.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 3rd, 2019