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The Rise and Rise of Indian Short-Video Apps

With TikTok definitively out of the short-video game in India, homegrown apps — like Josh, MX TakaTak, Moj and more — have taken over the country’s social media landscape. A year on, have they filled the Chinese giant’s boots?

Jessica Xalxo Jun 29, 2021

The genesis of every gain lies in a loss; TikTok's exit widened the playing field for both native apps and creators. Photo: Courtesy of Artists (clockwise from top left to right: Toukir Pathan, Siddhi Tiwari, Arishfa Khan, Rush Twins, Sommya Jain, Sameeksha Sud and Ruhi Singh.)

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The first video that pops up when I open Moj, one of the top five social apps on the Indian Google Play Store, is a clip of a girl intoning a Hindi couplet. “Jeeb jalne pe chai nahi chhodi jaati, toh dil jalne pe ishq kahaan se chhod denge (Just as one doesn’t abandon a cup of tea that burns their tongue, so must heartbreak not stop one’s endeavor to love,)” performs digital creator Aisha Kashyap. It’s romantic/life advice that’s best taken with a pinch of salt, but it’s also one of the many popular videos powering Indian social media 2.0, a chapter that has witnessed the rise of homegrown short-video apps.

Shortly after India’s infamous June 2020 TikTok ban*, the country’s social media landscape signaled an opportune moment for market players, existing and new, to capture the stage. 

*In light of India’s (ongoing) border tensions with China, the Ministry of Information Technology invoked section 69A to block 59 Chinese apps. Citing concerns over sovereignty, integrity and defense of the country, as well as security of state, public order and privacy considerations, the government would go on to block 208 more apps (including clones) between July to December, 2020.

The Chinese giant’s departure left a vacuum in India’s short-format content space where users had developed a voracious appetite for bite-sized videos. In 2016, when popular lip-sync platform Musical.ly had yet to be acquired by TikTok’s parent company ByteDance — which would happen in 2017 followed by a merger with TikTok in 2018 — a report by media company Vuclip found that short-form video content was being consumed by 85 percent of Indian viewers. This trend held strong up until the ban; a 2020 report by data analytics firm App Annie reckoned that Indian users accounted for 48% (5.5 billion) of the hours spent on TikTok outside China. With TikTok’s exit on June 29th, 2020, India’s 504M active Internet users found themselves in limbo as they searched for an app that could serve their creative and entertainment needs. The genesis of every gain lies in a loss and a slew of old and new Indian short-video apps, now uncontested, began to truly test the field.

India’s Short-Video Footprint: The Giant Boots of TikTok

When TikTok launched in India in 2017, the short-video giant had managed to do what no other platform or app in the country had truly done before — eliminate the gatekeeper of content. From everyday people like Mamta Verma, Dinesh Pawar and Mr Faisu who, equipped with a camera smartphone in 4G India, found themselves catapulted to the pantheon of India’s leading digital creators, to Bollywood celebrities like Jacqueline Fernandez, Riteish Deshmukh and Madhuri Dixit, whose lip-sync and challenge videos took the Internet by storm, TikTok’s algorithm skyrocketed rookie, rising and recognized creators to global visibility. 

The most sought-after nooks on the app offered users short videos comprising English language training, musical jams, comedic shorts and slick dance choreography. Production, planning and budgets weren’t necessary prerequisites to creating content on TikTok; aesthetic backgrounds and fancy equipment be damned. Folks from all walks of life found a platform on the app that boasted users and engagement from tier I, II and III+ cities. 

In the wake of the TikTok ban, the most urgent question on the Rush Twins’ minds was, “What’s going to be next?”. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

For New Delhi/Mumbai-based digital creator duo Rush Twins (Prakrati and Srashti Kushwaha), June 29th was a gloomy day. “We were about to gain popularity on TikTok but it seemed impossible after the ban. All the hard work we put into previous videos was in vain,” says Prakrati. The Rush Twins, whose videos comprised effortless vignettes of dance choreography, had just begun to dip their toes into the waters of content creation with TikTok. Recalling their concern in the aftermath of the ban, Srashti relates, “TikTok gave a huge platform and success to a lot of creators. The most worrying thing about the ban were questions about whether there was going to be any other short-video platform with so much audience? Is the Indian audience going to accept any other short-video app? What’s going to be next?”

“[Would] the Indian audience accept any other short-video app?”

— Srashti (of the Rush Twins)

Evidently, TikTok loved India and India loved TikTok. According to a July 2020 report by social media analytics firm HypeAuditor, TikTok had given rise to more than 2,00,000 influencers in India. Before the app was banned in June 2020, not only had it amassed 200M+ Indian users and clocked 2B+ downloads, but India was also its second-largest overseas market — a market TikTok planned to invest (2019 onwards) 1 billion dollars in. 

While the majority of Indian TikTok influencers had between 5K and 20K followers, 12% of influencers had over 100K followers. The engagement rate of Indian TikTok influencers (16.82%) too was 6% higher than the average worldwide engagement rate (15.86%), indicating that Indian TikTok users were more drawn to native influencers’ content and that these influencers’ profiles were a fertile platform for brands, companies and advertisers to invest in. 

A 2021 report by digital consulting firm RedSeer estimated that on a monthly average, micro influencers  (10-100K followers) earned between 3-15 thousand rupees, macro influencers (100K-1M followers) earned between 73 thousand to 1.82 lakh rupees, and mega influencers (1M+ followers) earned between 15-30 lakh rupees. When TikTok was banned in India, the prohibition disrupted both a creative and economic ecosystem that had sprung up over the app’s unparalleled 3-year run in the country, a period during which many Indians too had set out to pursue careers within this rapidly expanding space. 

“I was quite sure of myself, I knew that I would be able to thrive. But I was worried about all the people who were connected to the TikTok ecosystem. What would they do?”

— Sameeksha Sud

Actor, digital creator and former TikTok sensation Sameeksha Sud first thought the ban to be a prank. Once the dust settled, she threw herself headfirst into content creation on Instagram and YouTube, exploring the platforms’ short-video features Reels (which launched on July 8th, 2020) and Shorts (which launched on September 15th, 2020). “I was quite sure of myself, I knew that I would be able to thrive. But I was worried about all the people who were connected to the TikTok ecosystem. What would they do?”, says Sud. Now one of India’s leading digital creators, the 28-year-old joined Musical.ly in 2016, making her one of the earliest influencers in the Indian short-video space. Sud reveals that while influencer commercials for former top TikTok talents have largely stabilized almost a year on, they aren’t the same as they used to be in the TikTok era. She chalks this down to the ongoing migration and building of numbers that creators continue to contend with on new social media platforms.

Sameeksha Sud first thought the TikTok ban to be a prank. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

Aman Sharma, Head of Onboarding at Qyuki Digital Media — one of India’s largest talent management agencies — too estimates that the influencer employment rate has taken a hit after the TikTok ban. “When you look at the industry, there were a certain set of creators, both big and small, who were able to find their jobs back. But that was not the case with all the creators. This is a challenge for current players in the market — how to reach out to the maximum number of creators who want to create content?”, he says. The TikTok prohibition especially hit influencers from tier II and III cities hard where users created content to supplement, grow or earn additional income before and during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown. About bridging this gap, Sharma says, “TikTok and other platforms had been around for a long period of time versus these new apps that have barely been around for 6-9 months. So, it would be unjust to expect that they are going to employ or share opportunities with the same number of people, but I do see them moving towards that.” 

“Jobs would’ve been endangered to a certain extent, but there was no way the Indian ecosystem would not come up and fill this void.”

— Qyuki’s Aman Sharma

This TikTok ecosystem was not only limited to influencers but also encompassed jobs relating to distribution, marketing, management, brand and business opportunities. Had the new homegrown, Indian short-video ecosystem not risen, would all these jobs have been endangered? Qyuki’s Sharma weighs in, “We were already looking at creating more jobs in this segment, not only on the agency side but also on the platform side. So jobs would’ve been endangered to a certain extent, but there was no way the Indian ecosystem would not come up and fill this void.”

The recent RedSeer report estimates that time spent by users on short-form video apps has now reached 55% of the levels in June 2020, indicating a strong market opportunity for Indian platforms as they continue to mature in 2021. While the ecosystem birthed by TikTok has halfway recovered, TikTok’s operations in the country didn’t have the same luck. 

In January 2021, Tiktok’s then Global Interim Head (now COO) Vanessa Pappas and Vice President for Global Business Solutions Blake Chandlee communicated to its 2000+ employees over email that they would be downsizing TikTok’s workforce in India. “While we don’t know when we will make a comeback in India, we are confident in our resilience, and desire to do so in times to come,” they wrote in the joint email.

The New Indian Social Media Vanguard: Josh, MX TakaTak, Moj and More

“The industry moves really fast. There wasn’t a gap in terms of TikTok getting banned and then other apps [rising].”

— Qyuki’s Aman Sharma

While existing native apps such as Chingari, Mitron, Trell, Roposo and more — that had previously been unable to hold a candle to TikTok’s gargantuan 200M+ Indian user base — enjoyed a spike in users and engagement during the ensuing period, none (with the exception of Roposo) have been able to compete with the slate of new Indian apps now saturating the social media market. As of the publication of this article, apps from established digital brands checking into the short-video space such as VerSe Innovation’s Josh, Mohalla Tech’s Moj and MX Player’s MX TakaTak occupy the third, fifth and sixth positions, respectively, on the Indian Play Store charts. Josh and Moj rolled out in July 2020, within a month of the TikTok ban, while MX TakaTak launched later that year in September. Old and new international players like Triller, Dubsmash, Instagram’s Reels, YouTube’s Shorts and Snapchat’s Spotlight — that help creators tap into a global audience — made a splash, but have been unable to gain as deep a footing in the Indian short-format space as the native short-video apps.

“The industry moves really fast. There wasn’t a gap in terms of TikTok getting banned and then other apps [rising]… I think this was something which was already in the process of happening,” says Qyuki’s Sharma. “The ban accelerated things for certain platforms but I think that everyone was anyway planning to join the market. The ban led to a first-mover advantage and evened things up,” he adds. 

By early July 2020, Indian apps had begun reaching out to creators and influencer agencies in full swing, aiming to assimilate existing talent into the new Indian short-video ecosystem. Sharma tells us that each app was in a different life cycle during this process. “Some platforms were at the stage where they were trying to build the product better, [while] some platforms were at the stage where they had already started building the product and were now looking at the best creators to work with.”

Josh: ‘We understand Bharat’

Josh tells Rolling Stone India that they’ve a minute grasp on Indian content and context.

“The ban on TikTok definitely served as tailwinds for the Indian app ecosystem, especially short-format video,” say Josh’s Seher Bedi (Head, Josh Studios) and Ravanan N (Executive Director & Head of Content, Josh). Enabled by an established tech stack from VerSe Innovation’s popular news aggregator platform Dailyhunt, Josh staged a beta launch in July. During this period, the app claims to have amassed 23M DAU i.e. daily active users. This was followed by an official release in September, when the app unveiled a roster of 200+ leading Indian creators, including former TikTok superstars Team 07, Teen Tigada, Riya Kishanchandani, Krish Gawali and more. This year, Indian music powerhouse Badshah, too, exclusively boarded the app for a period of six months. 

“The ban on TikTok definitely served as tailwinds for the Indian app ecosystem, especially short-format video.”

— Josh’s Seher Bedi and Ravanan N

Between Dailyhunt and Josh, Bedi and N maintain that what sets their short-video app apart from TikTok is a minute grasp of Indian content and context. “We understand Bharat, we understand local languages and we get traffic from 19,000 out of 21,000 pin codes in India,” they say. Built in collaboration with creators, whose feedback was vital to creating the platform, Josh claims to now clock in 42M DAU and 90M MAU (monthly active users).

MX TakaTak: ‘We enable creators to gain fame and monetization’

MX TakaTak tells Rolling Stone India that they’re well-positioned to build a rewarding ecosystem for creators.

For Times Internet’s popular streaming platform MX Player, tapping into the potential of India’s post-TikTok short-video market was strengthened by an aim to power the country’s next big wave of digital content consumption. Says Janhavi Parikh (Business Head, MX TakaTak), “MX TakaTak is a creator-first platform that enables its content creators to gain fame and monetization. From our perspective, we are well-positioned to build a rewarding ecosystem for creators that other brands may not be able to, especially when it comes to feature opportunities on PR or opportunities to start in long-form content, since we’re a part of MX Player.” 

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With the app claiming to record over 150M MAU, Parikh cites MX TakaTak’s live streaming and calling features — the latter of which TikTok did not offer — as key enablers connecting creators with their audience. Onboarding celebrities across various segments has also been a vital driver of growth for the platform which is home to former leading TikTok acts such as singers Neha Kakkar and Tonny Kakkar as well as digital creators Avneet Kaur, Priyanka Mongia, Gima Ashi and Deepak Joshi. Indian Men’s Cricket Team captain Virat Kohli recently made his short-video debut on MX TakaTak as well. 

Moj: ‘70 engineers and experts delivered the app in record time’

Moj tells Rolling Stone India that the app was launched within a span of 30 hours.

Claiming to now be 120M MAU-strong, Moj leaned on its bank of digital insights and technical learnings — from Mohalla Tech’s social media platform ShareChat — to launch, roughly a day after the TikTok ban, on July 1st. Shashank Shekhar (Director – Content Strategy, Moj) claims that both ideation and development of the app took place during this short period. 

“Backed with immense dedication, hard work, and 30 sleepless hours, the team delivered the first version of the product.”

— Moj’s Shashank Shekhar

He says, “Due to the existing know-how around social and video with ShareChat, a team of over 70 engineers and product experts was formed with a single focus, of building Moj in the earliest possible timeline. Backed with immense dedication, hard work, and 30 sleepless hours, the team delivered the first version of the product.” With former TikTok-created superstars Arishfa Khan and Riyaz Aly, as well as popular actors and choreographers such as Shehnaaz Gill, Remo D’souza and Dharmesh Yelande on board, Moj joins Josh and MX TakaTak in being the go-to social media destination for short-video content. The app also recently announced popular actors Ananya Pandey and Vijay Devarakonda as brand ambassadors.

The Great Indian Social Media Migration

When the TikTok ban was declared on June 29th, 2020, India was experiencing its first nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. Creators were not only worried about their health and livelihood, but also about how they would sustain themselves in a new content ecosystem that, like the old one, demanded consistent uploads. Soon they began looking for the next short-video platform that would support their craft.

Life after the TikTok ban

“I faced a hard time using third-party apps to edit my videos,” says Arishfa Khan. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

“There was already news going around about the impending ban, so I was prepared for it and it didn’t come as a shock,” says 19-year-old former TikTok superstar and actor Arishfa Khan. The influencer, who had 28.6M TikTok followers at the time of the Chinese giant’s exit, immediately thought of how challenging it was going to be to make the videos that first cemented her as one of India’s leading creators. “It wasn’t just the dimension or the concept that made short-form videos entertaining, it was the way they were packaged, edited and created. I faced a hard time using third-party apps to edit my videos,” says Khan whose content spans the gamut of comedy, family and cinematic shorts. 

“When Tiktok was banned, it did come as a shock but we weren’t panicking as the app was banned earlier also once (in April 2019). But this time, we didn’t know that it would not make a comeback,” says social media label NOFILTR’s COO Mihir Surana. “Most of our creators had started establishing themselves on other platforms too, even before the app was banned. There definitely was a concern in the industry on how this will affect brand campaigns. But both, the brands and content creators, had to move on. Their audience found them on other platforms and the creators continued to generate content and entertain their fans,” he says.

Finding the right app

Reels did not instill complete confidence in creators who were then looking for the next TikTok; influencers weren’t sure about the longevity of the new feature.

Most creators moved to popular international social media platforms in the interim. The Rush Twins, whose Instagram was a repository of photo content, began experimenting with video as Instagram Reels launched in India shortly after the ban. Released in an experimental capacity, Reels did not instill complete confidence in creators who were then looking for the next TikTok; influencers weren’t sure about the longevity of the new feature. As new Indian short-video apps began to trend on the social media charts, creators began experimenting across platforms, trying to figure out which app might be the best fit for their content. The Rush Twins decided to give MX TakaTak a go. “It seemed to be the safest option among all the short video apps ‘cause it belonged to MX Player and [we figured] it would have an audience, more or less,” says Prakrati. 

Sameeksha Sud maintains that content creation across multiple platforms is key to sustaining oneself in the social media ecosystem. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

“We honestly didn’t have a lot of time to figure out a plan of action. Our fans were looking to follow us on new platforms and I wanted to start making content again, so they would know where to find me,” says Mumbai-based Sud. The interlude between the ban and the roll-out of new Indian short-video apps was a time during which Sud took on the challenge of experimenting with content, tailoring her videos to complement different platforms. Her content now spans the expanse of dance videos, comedic shorts and motivational messages. “Teen saal agar aap continuously ek tarikey ka content bana rahe ho toh zaahir si baat hain ki aap usmein kaafi perfect ho jaate ho (If you make the same type of content over three years, you obviously perfect the technique.) But now I’m trying to see ki main aur bhi kya kar sakti hoon short-form platforms pe? Ab hum alag kya laaye, naya kya kare (How can I bring new and different content to these platforms?)”, she says. 

Navigating a new ecosystem

One of the reasons why creators miss TikTok so much is because the app’s algorithm favored content irrespective of whether it adhered to Instagram standards of what’s aesthetic. It enabled the meteoric rise of creators across diverse cross-sections of society.

The few months during which the Rush Twins created content on TikTok before the ban — they had around 1000 followers in the course of that stint — were instrumental in building their understanding of the Indian short-video ecosystem. (One of the reasons why creators miss TikTok so much is because the app’s algorithm favored content irrespective of whether it adhered to Instagram standards of what’s aesthetic, enabling the meteoric rise of creators across diverse cross-sections of society.) The Rush Twins applied their learnings of what type of videos work best on short-format platforms to their second innings with the MX TakaTak app. “It’s the best way to gain followers in a lesser time [period] because it [demands] just 15-second [videos]. The app has helped us gain a fan base and has increased our face value,” say Srashti and Prakrati who now have 8.7M followers on the app. They’ve also been able to begin monetizing their content via brand deals offered by MX TakaTak.

The Rush Twins applied their learnings of what type of videos work best on short-format platforms to their second innings with the MX TakaTak app. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

Come September, Sud also expanded to the new Indian short-video ecosystem by joining Josh where she currently has more followers (27.3M) than she did on TikTok (25M). She tells us that the app has been working closely with creators to provide them with ancillary information and aid, which in turn helps them improve their standards of content. “Content creation is not that difficult. Bolna toh ek actor ka kala hota hain, but kya pehen ke bolna hain? Kahan khade hokar bolna hain? Jo saari cheezein content ke around hoti hain, unka take care jab koi kar leta hain na, tab ek content creator ke liye bahut easy ho jaata hain (Acting is second nature to us, but uploading short videos becomes easier when someone takes care of things like styling, direction and all the other logistics around creating content,) and that is where Josh is helping us,” says Sud.

Actor and former Miss India Ruhi Singh, who joined Sud and other creators on the Josh app, says that her brief stint on TikTok led to her followers requesting aspirational content. “I basically shared facets of my life as an actor, as a model and as a former Miss India on TikTok. This usually included a lot of behind the scenes clips where I attempted to demystify and show another side of the glamorous industry, so that people could understand what goes into doing what we do,” says the Mumbai-based creator. 

“If you’re good, you’ll get noticed. Nobody can stop pure talent,” says Ruhi Singh about cracking the social media game. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

A flood of requests from over 1.8M+ of Singh’s social media followers led her to try out Josh where the actor has amassed a following of over 3.4M fans by posting fashion, travel, fitness and comedy videos. For those looking to make their mark in the short-video space, Singh suggests getting disciplined and scaling one’s skills. “Treat it like a profession, but have fun. This is your playground; you’re the director, you’re the actor, you’re the editor. It’s your own movie. If you’re good, you’ll get noticed. Nobody can stop pure talent,” she says. While 25-year-old Singh makes most of her revenue through Instagram, she maintains that apps like Josh help creators find a bigger audience, leading to higher numbers and commercials across social media platforms. “It’s got great accessibility,” she says.

Echoing Singh’s sentiment of social media cross-pollination, Sud, as one of the top digital creators in the country, maintains that content creation, across multiple platforms, is key to sustaining oneself in the ecosystem. “If you’re a social media influencer, how can you just be on one app? You’re a social media influencer!”, she says. Sud attributes this lesson to the TikTok ban as well as to team TikTok India who, during operational years, strongly recommended to creators that they get active on other platforms as well. “It’s better to have more options. Every platform has its own beauty and reveals different facets of your creativity,” says Sud who believes that a pan social media presence enables the holistic growth of an artist.

“If I spend my energy worrying about the technical side of it, then I will not be able to concentrate on creativity,” says Arishfa Khan about the everyday intricacies of content creation. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

Soon after the TikTok ban, Khan recalls almost instantly getting invites from various apps. The Mumbai-based influencer chose Moj in August 2020 (where she now has over 10M followers) because she believed the app would have a better understanding of the ecosystem, given ShareChat’s history and popularity in the social media space. “For a creator, the most important aspect is to be able to deliver content to their community in an effortless manner. If I spend my energy worrying about the technical side of it, then I will not be able to concentrate on creativity,” says Khan who boils her move down to two factors: Moj’s in-app features and an excellent support system provided by the team. 

Summing up the experience of assimilation into the new Indian short-video ecosystem, Qyuki’s Sharma says, “We had to put this in the past and think about what we can now do in the future with these talented people who we are managing.”

India’s short-video apps find their footing

“The ban allowed users and creators to view the short-video ecosystem differently — where home-grown tech platforms had the capability to take on the challenge and deliver innovative, safe and long-term solutions for their creative and economic aspirations.”

— Josh’s Seher Bedi and Ravanan N

According to the RedSeer report, 30-35 percent of short-form video users adapted to homegrown short-video platforms after the TikTok ban, whereas 65-70 percent of preexisting TikTok users have been retained by Indian short video apps. India’s short video apps have also captured 60-62 percent MAU in the tier 2+ market due to their ‘Bharat’ positioning that focused on vernacular content as compared to global social media platforms. 55% of users mention availability of this vernacular content as the key reason for using Indian short-form video apps.

The report also stated that Josh has fared well in tier II cities with users emerging primarily from the Hindi belt of India, whereas MX TakaTak performed best in metro cities, while Moj performed well in tier II+ cities and second-best in tier I cities with its growth largely being driven by regional language markets, particularly in southern states.

About the social media migration in TikTok’s wake, Josh’s Bedi and N say, “What we observed of the ban was that it allowed users and creators to view the short-video ecosystem differently — where home-grown tech platforms had the capability to take on the challenge and deliver innovative, safe and long-term solutions for their creative and economic aspirations.” With Josh, MX TakaTak and Moj securing promising funding from investors, their commitment to building a long-term ecosystem seems well in place.

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The Next League of Rising Creators

The Indian ecosystem of short-video apps has also given rise to an all-new wave of creators who ventured into the space after the TikTok ban. While the ban didn’t level the playing field, it certainly created a springboard for fresh talent to find their spotlight.

Siddhi Tiwari is following her fashion dream on Josh. Photo: Screenshot/Josh

For 20-year-old Siddhi Tiwari, Josh was a platform where she could lean into her sartorial dream. She tells us that she had always wanted to pursue a career in fashion, but that until recently, her family was opposed to it. “While I was doing my BBA, I wanted to do something in fashion so I thought of fashion content. But as I belong to a middle-class family, I didn’t have the best equipment for shooting videos. So, it was hard to get an interested audience,” she says. Tiwari began exploring the style space on Instagram before moving to Josh after an agent from the app approached her. A month later, Tiwari’s video on Disney princess-inspired outfits garnered her an audience and appreciation on the app. The Gwalior-based creator, who now has over 398.6K followers, says, “Getting such a great response was very motivating. I have always loved fashion and seeing that I can grow in that field, maybe even make a career out of it one day, which my family won’t be against… I think Josh is a great platform to post your content.”

Toukir Pathan indulges viewers in tricky and technical basketball videos on MX TakaTak. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

A national basketball player from the Rajasthan basketball academy, Toukir Pathan found his way onto MX TakaTak due to his brother’s encouragement. The 25-year-old too, like Tiwari, found a robust audience on the app a month into creating content. “I am a professional basketball player. I really love my game and I love to create tricky shot videos. But I post tutorials more than these tricky videos because I want everyone who likes and supports my videos to learn from my tutorials,” he says. After enduring a lower back injury that could’ve retired him from the game, Pathan found his way back to basketball after a year, going on to win district and state tournaments. The Jhalawar-based creator is now somewhat of a sporting phenomenon with over 543.2K followers on the app; he’s also been bestowed with the popular creator sign. “Creating more and more videos and hard work led me to success on the app. Prepare yourself for your dreams. Don’t lose hope,” says Pathan.

Hailing from Dhar, Sommya Jain first begun exploring content creation during 2020’s lockdown. The 33-year-old entrepreneur took to TikTok to pursue her hobbies of dancing and acting. She wished to “bring about a change in the mentality of our society and to inspire people with my positivity,” as she mentioned in a blog. Jain, who steadily gained popularity during her three months on the app, tells us that the TikTok ban was ultimately a boon for her. “TikTok ban hone ke wajah se YouTube or Instagram ne short-video ka feature instantly nikala aur maine apne TikTok par banaye saare short video wahan post kar diye (Due to the TikTok ban, YouTube and Instagram rolled out Shorts and Reels and I uploaded all my TikTok videos on these new platforms,)” she says. This migration of existing content, mixed with new uploads, led to Jain establishing herself as a digital creator across platforms. She recently even earned YouTube’s Silver Play Button and monetized her channel. 

Sommya Jain attributes the realization of her social media dream to the TikTok ban. Photo: Courtesy of Artist.

In the aftermath of the TikTok ban, Jain also gave many of the new short-video apps a go, but felt like none of them could provide the impressions and reach that the Chinese giant did. Eventually, she saw Moj trending on the app charts and like Tiwari, Jain too was approached by an agent to join Moj. Her first video was a comedic short about the lockdown that eventually went viral on the app. Within a month, Jain began to see her subscriber numbers climbing to her current 1.8M follower base. About establishing herself as a social media influencer, Jain says, “Jo aaj mera sapna pura ho chuka hain Tiktok ban hone ki wajah se hua hain (The realization of my dream has only been possible because of the TikTok ban.)”

The TikTok Shadow: Problems that Persist in the Indian Short-Video Space

As influential as TikTok was in India, the app’s ban is infamous for reasons beyond mere entertainment.

To call TikTok’s prohibition a big deal would be an understatement. It was a polarizing directive that caused both concern and applaud, fracturing political and pop culture consciousness across consequential lines. Citizens commended the government on safeguarding national security while bemoaning the blurring boundaries between protection of privacy and censorship. This wasn’t the first time TikTok has been banned in India either. 

The app had been prohibited in April 2019 for a brief period of two weeks after the Madras High Court demanded the government ban the app and bar the media from using any content created on TikTok. Over the years, incidents of minor exposure to sensitive content, videos that promoted or contained instances of caste-based violence, sexual abuse and acid attacks, as well as cases of fatal accidents that occurred during the creation of TikTok videos, added to the mounting pressure that resulted in TikTok’s first — temporary — ban. According to a Reuters report, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, in a court filing, cited experiencing financial losses of up to $500,000 a day during the app’s first ban in the country. It’s no bold guess to say that India truly made the app tick.

When TikTok returned, the app, over time, rolled out protective measures that combined content moderation technology with a human moderation team, in addition to setting up an online safety center of resources. They also launched in-app safety features such as device management, comments filter and an age restriction (below the age of 13 years) to join the app.

The Indian apps too have largely followed in these footsteps, cognizant of the safety, social and political issues that have plagued the country’s short-video space. MX TakaTak tells us that content moderation is an area they are deeply investing in. “We currently follow a multi-pronged approach to ensure that our content guidelines are upheld,” says Parikh. This entails a process led by automation at MX TakaTak, wherein the app utilizes deep learning models to run machine audits on user-generated content. This is further strengthened by manual checks to support the app’s automated systems. 

“Each piece undergoes meticulous manual intervention first by a team of moderators comprising 200-300 desks.”

— Josh’s Seher Bedi and Ravanan N

Josh too employs a combination of machine and human moderation, with a robust emphasis on manual checks. Bedi and N explain the app’s multi-layered approach, “The first is the machine layer, where every single piece of content is parsed through a state-of-the-art AI-ML layer for tagging and action. After this, each piece undergoes meticulous manual intervention first by a team of moderators comprising 200-300 desks who use the Josh moderation console to dedicatedly work on two sub-streams: machine identified content and, all other content that is marked safe by the machine.”

The content is then relayed to a core team of 40-50 content moderators who monitor and perform checks directly on user-reported content, while simultaneously reviewing content passed down from the larger set of moderators. “The last step in this multi-layered approach rests with the machine training operation team, a team of 40+ people who work on multiple training data sets in a continuous manner to increase the identification capability of the machine moderation system,” say Bedi and N. Moj did not reveal it’s safety and moderation practices.

While the content seemed reasonably well moderated on all three apps, something that popped up as a concern were the push notifications. During my month-long engagement as an unregistered user on all three apps, I received numerous notifications from Josh, MX TakaTak and Moj that attributed gendered and sexual captions to user’s videos. Notifications from Josh carried lines like “SEXY Kamariya Mein Lattu Hai Duniya. Baby You Just Stole My Heart Away.” Alerts from MX TakaTak carried text such as, “Dekhein Ye Bandi Ka Hot Video,” while notifications from Moj carried lines like “Kaha Jaa Rahe Ho Moj user. Yeh Dekh k toh jaoo…” Upon opening the notifications, these words weren’t in the user’s captions or in the tracks accompanying their videos. In all these cases, unsurprisingly, none of the videos featured cisgender males. This raises an alarming concern about how short-video apps are categorizing, packaging and pushing user content, and is a component of the content machinery that apps must address.

An inkling of the various gendered and sexual notifications received during usage of the three apps.

This raises an alarming concern about how short-video apps are categorizing, packaging and pushing user content, and is a component of the content machinery that apps must address.

The Future of Indian Short-Video: Training, Mentoring and Funding Creators

With 75 percent of current Indian short-video platform users unlikely to switch back to Chinese apps, in the event that the ban is lifted, homegrown apps are not only here to stay, but have plans to scale.

From scripting, presentation and shooting, to editing, strategy and publishing, the apps are investing in fostering the future superstars of India’s short-video ecosystem. In addition to plans of hulking up their technology, Josh, MX TakaTak and Moj have all launched training, spotlight or content creation programs for promising users: Josh helmed the World Famous campaign and organized a CreatorThon, MX Taka Tak launched the Creator Fund and Creator Fellowship, and Moj unveiled a Creators Program in the last nine months.

MX TakaTak’s Parikh predicts that “short, user-generated videos will be a lasting part of the social media landscape, particularly for organic and influencer marketing, paid advertising, and social commerce.” Moj’s Shekhar confirms that there has been an increasing number of eyeballs from brands. “We have seen significant interest from advertisers organically, ranging from digital consumer services to FMCG,” he says. With social media and online video constituting more than 50 percent of the digital media ad spend ($2.37B+) in India in FY21, digital media is one of the fastest-growing advertising channels in the current financial year.

Shekhar also foresees an increasing demand for content categories such as lifestyle, food, fashion, sports & fitness and future tech, that will exceed the popularity of mainstream topics like dance, lip-syncing, acting and comedy. “Users will want differentiated and unique content that breaks away from traditional categories. With more next-generation internet users joining social media, UGC (user-generated content) driven by local and regional trends will also witness a spike in the coming years,” he says.

“Being an influencer is a journey that takes learning a lot of things. There is no notebook to tell you what is wrong. A system needs to be built.”

— Qyuki’s Aman Sharma

Qyuki’s Sharma anticipates the Indian short-video ecosystem tapping into the education sector as well. “We’ve already revolutionized the short content space by establishing short consumption patterns, but it would really change the space if a lot more people are able to build and showcase that content,” he says. As there are no schools, courses or recognized training programs to teach people how to be influencers, Sharma outlines this gap as a need. “Being an influencer is a journey that takes learning a lot of things. You can self-learn, learn from friends or from other influencers. After a certain stage you can learn from the companies you’re working with. But it takes a lot of learning and there is no notebook to tell you what is wrong. I think a system needs to be built,” he says.

According to a 2021 global report by social media management system HootSuite, TikTok is the seventh-most used social media platform and the most used short-video app with 689M MAU around the world. While Indian apps are steadily reclaiming the national market, can they compete with international players for global impact and exposure? 

“I don’t think there is anything which is going to stop these apps or this market from going global, because the kind of following and madness around these creators is unbelievable. Without putting names, I see international creators reaching out to Indian creators all the time. They do have a global appeal and people are looking at this market very seriously with Indian creators also trying to cross-pollinate culturally,” says Sharma. 

The industry veteran adds, “I don’t see this happening this year, but I certainly do believe that this market is going to go global. Indian apps or India itself is going to be one of the major players. I think what we are going to witness is even going to revolutionize how trade happens with countries.”

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