Democratik-Tok: How TikTok Allows Ordinary Citizens To Rise To Fame
“Acha tou humloag kahan thay mei bhool bhi gaya itni jaldi!”, (Where were we again? I forgot so soon.), chirps the 17 year old Muhammad Areeb Khan, more popularly known as Mak Cullen on TikTok, as he candidly recounts his life story.
Mak, like a lot of individuals, has made his face prominent and memorable on the internet mainly through TikTok, a mobile application that allows you to make short videos, typically with background music.
While TikTok originally began as a lip-syncing and dancing outlet, the app now stands as a miscellany, a diverse plethora of various types of content sprawled across its layers. A lot of us find ourselves scrolling through the app, the quarantine boredom has compelled us to download it.
However, the diversity does not cease to bloom within the type of content, but can also be seen in the type of people present on the app as well. It is to be noticed that more and more people, especially in Pakistan, are emerging as local TikTok celebrities.
Not long ago, Naila Jutt started blowing up on the app with a lot of hate comments on her lifestyle and clothing. Her videos depicted her life, unadulterated. Just a Pakistani woman comfortable in her skin, documenting her days using comedy and dramatic dialogue as an outlet.
It was refreshing to see that on social media because Pakistani women seldom have an internet presence so well known for documenting their unfiltered life, except for some of the most obviously affluent and privileged of the lot.
Now, Naila has reached numerous milestones as a social media celebrity, being invited to talk shows, getting makeovers and being interviewed left and right. “Loag baatein bhi kertay hain, bhala bura bhi kertay hain. Jahan pe pyaar bhi kertay hain wahan nafrat bhi kertay hain.”, she explained how her experience with comments has been in a recent interview.
Naila’s situation is proof of TikTok allowing a Pakistani individual who was not famous on social media before to rise up to fame and to have a hundred doors of opportunities sprawled open before them.
What is interesting about the place is that both cisgender women and women from the transgender community, differently abled people, and individuals from lower-class backgrounds seem to be reclaiming the internet through the app.
It is already well understood that social media is a powerful democratizing force for the common individual, the claim just didn’t feel right to make for Pakistan where Twitter and Instagram prominence mainly rests in the hands of relatively privileged people.
However, with people from marginalised communities in Pakistan rising to visibility and expression, it could be true that TikTok is the democratizing saving grace that South Asia has always needed. But the question is, does the power to express come with the condition that the expresser has skin thick enough to deal with the hate?
Areeb, or Mak, dissects his experiences with not only the gleeful aspects of life such as his passion for all things music, dance and makeup artistry, but also the poignant aspects of life on the internet, for instance, cyberbullying and harassment since he is an advocate for saying things how they are and for having honest conversations about harassment since these conversations have to be had.
“Mera jo fashion style hai bohat zyada alag hai … I feel good in loose shirts”, he further protests against the fashion policing in the comment section of TikTok videos. A lot of the popular reception he faces online is a result of his reluctance to adhere to conventionally masculine ways.
He describes his love for dance to have existed long before the existence of TikTok or even of its predecessor, Musical.ly. On the other hand, the lack of support has persisted long before his internet presence as well.
Knowing the story of Mak, it is evident that while more and more Pakistanis from marginalised communities are embracing their identity on the app, it’s not without difficulty.
“If a boy my age makes a tiktok, there will mostly be positive responses on his comment section, but if a girl creates similar TikToks, the responses would be “sit at home” or they would say that ladies should not do these dances”, 13-year-old Ilya from Karachi explains the systemic hate she gets for being a young Pakistani girl on the app, she further adds, “Not that boys don’t get hate, they do but the mindset of people in Pakistan pushes more negativity towards women.”
Ilya, with her 31.4K follower count, does believe in the democratising power of TikTok. On being asked if TikTok has enabled more and more Pakistanis to become expressive on the app, she affirmed by stating, “It definitely has. No matter where they are from, they can use this fantastic app to express their feelings and can share their passion to the world by making 15-60 second videos. I personally can be who I am on Tiktok as people have been more open minded on this app. There are also not many opportunities here so this app which is used all over the world really helps”.
She firmly believes that TikTok can potentially be a means of social change in Pakistan.
“One example of how it has brought social change is by keeping people active. In Pakistan, girls usually don’t play sports because of the societal norm that girls should stick more to “feminine” activities. TikTok has made us active by learning new TikTok dances.”, she states as she concludes recounting her experience with the app.
Ilya’s views are shared by many people within the same age bracket, including 16-year-old Ali, known as Swotchey on the app. He believes that the comedy, musical content and challenges on the app actually serve to be a good outlet and coping strategy for people struggling with mental health issues.
With the positive and negative implications of TikTok on the lives of various groups and communities of Pakistani people considered, it is safe to conclude that the app is assisting more people than usual to have an internet presence especially during current times of lock-down and the coronavirus.
Sarah Shamim is a student, aspiring journalist, and activist from Karachi. Her work surrounds culture, gender, mental health, and the climate crisis.