Tiktok: socio-economic class and dissenting expression

Nahid Riyasad | Published: 00:00, Aug 09,2020


— Collected

The recent arrest of a popular Tiktoker Yeasin Arafat Opu visiblised the class dimension of social media use. Nahid Riyasad writes about the cultural politics of Tiktok

Tiktok, a social media platform of sharing small videos has been in the talks around the world lately. With the US president’s threat to buy the app through American tech corporations and India’s ban on the app following the unrest in borders with China, the wave also hit Bangladesh with the arrest of a popular content creator of Tiktok.

Yeasin Arafat Opu, a Tiktoker who goes by the name ‘apuvai3 and popularly known as Opu Bai, was arrested on August 4, 2020 from Uttara, Dhaka on charges of assaulting, harassing and beating three youths in a public place.

Police sources told the New Age that Opu assaulted one Mehedi Hassan Robin on August 2 evening and the victim’s father later filed a case against him and some other unidentified youths with the local police station.

On the evening of the incident, Mehedi was driving his car with three friends when Opu and his associates were making videos on a road in the Sector-8 area. Robin honked his car as they blocked the road. Enraged, Opu and his accomplices allegedly assaulted them, leaving Robin and two others injured.

Now, there are laws at place to address the physical offence that Opu and his accomplices have allegedly committed, but the hate-speech and socio-economic stigmatisation targeted towards an entire community of Tiktok users following the arrest also demand attention. Some social media users have flagged the comments of the urban educated cultural gatekeepers who labelled Opu’s contents as not cultural enough as class discrimination.  

Social media platforms are swarmed with comments harshly ‘othering’ the performers with homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic slangs. Also, socio-economic status was a key point to defame them, as evident in the video which shows people calling Opu ‘fokinnir put’ (son of a beggar) and trying to cut his hair with scissors.

Raise by their single mother at her Noakhali residence, Opu is the elder among two brothers. Apu finished till class 10 in a madrasha but could not finish his schooling, as he started apprenticeship at a cellphone repair shop. However, he worked as a barber at a number of local men’s beauty salon. From then on, he found fame at online entertainment platforms like Tiktok and Likee.

During a conversation with the media, his younger brother Antor said that other Tiktok groups have tried several times to beat his brother on camera. Opu’s more than 150,000 followers on Tiktok means it would be an instant viral.

So, what is Tiktok and why is it so detested by the urban educated youth? A Facebook user commented under a compilation of Tiktok video that he wants to shove up bamboo up the performers. What is the reason behind such hatred?

There are reasons to oppose Opu’s Tiktok content as much of his jokes are at the expense ridiculing or demeaning women. However, that has not been the reason his popularity and stardom is trashed by the mainstream media, terming it ‘cheap popularity.’ It appears that much of the cultural distance is rather classed.

Tiktok is the first Chinese social media platform to go viral around the globe, after it was released globally in 2017. With 800 million active users worldwide, 41 per cent of the users are aged between 16-24, easily making it the most popular platform with the early youths. With 90 per cent of the users using the app daily, they spend 52 minutes on an average every day.

In 2019, the app was downloaded 523 million times. The lockdown exponentially increased its global popularity with more than 200 million downloads in the first quarter of 2020.

In this platform, the users can share one-minute videos and they can choose from a plethora of filters and music from the app’s store. The contents are on anything from food, fun, prank and more. The contents also reflect the political reality and socio-economic standings of the youth of the respective countries.

Tiktok contents need very minimal-set ups, only a smart-phone with internet connection would do, contrary to the professional level equipment used by many popular Youtubers, thus allowing access to the economically marginalised people to take part in the cyber-entertainment world and create contents.

A flick through popular performers of Tiktok can tell us that many of them are fashion conscious and are eager to try the new trends and Avant-guard hair styles and dyes. A few young people from Opu’s locality told the media that they cut and dye their hair following Opu’s style.

Another Facebook user commented under another Tiktok video compilation that he has to try hard not to go and cut such hair with a pair of scissors. So, they have their own style and fashion statements that some find very attractive and some find it very disapproving.  

Instead of reading these fashion signs and symbols as dissenting expression of the mofussil youth, who does not have easy access to mainstream youth cultural spaces, many netizens are trashing their cultural expression and, in a way, contributing to an othering process.

In a Facebook group named ‘Beautiful Jhenaidah’ a video was posted with samples of Tiktok clips uploaded by the users of the locality. The performers were matching their moves with the music of the video. Moreover, many of the female performers were in hijab. The page asked the concerned authorities to take ‘actions’ against the Tiktokers as they were ‘defiling the youth and culture’ of the area. So, the disapproval is not exclusively an urban phenomenon.

An additional superintendent ranked officer of police commented and named a few of the performers and said to contact him whenever they are available in a particular place. Many users also asked the district commissioner’s office to take actions against them. The ground was their activities were bringing ‘shame’ for their district.

Hero Alam is a known entertainer in our country who has gained popularity for his contents among socio-economically marginalised people. On Agust 5, from his verified Facebook account, Alam posted a photo and hashtags demanding a ban on Tiktok and Likee app in Bangladesh.

He accused these two apps of spreading eroticism and defiling young students. His profile boasts more than a million followers and at least 3500 people love reacted the post. A further 17,000 liked the post. Clearly, if for urban youth, the Tiktok content of Opu is ‘uncultured’, for local moral guardians, these contents are breaking social norms.

In the comment sections, heated debates went on and users labelled both Hero Alam and Tiktok users as ‘physically and mentally disabled’. Instead of understanding the socio-cultural-political reality behind these contents and offering constructive criticism, users mainly targeted their socio-economic class.

The commenters also failed to comprehend the evolving cultural expression of a larger youth of the country and why their contents are hugely popular. Clearly, stigmatising a popular cultural trend outside the realm of urban space is disturbingly exclusionary tendency.

Yeasir Arafath Borno, a young film-maker and a student of anthropology in Jahangirnagar University termed such tendency of the urban educated middle class’ to shape the cultural expression as cultural-terrorism, ‘Tiktok is the cultural space of a larger social class, the way Tiktok contents are discussed is an indication of the cultural dominance of the cultural elites.’

Aronnok Arnob writes, Tiktok is shaping the development of a Bangladeshi punk culture. He also thinks that cultural oppression begets such drastic expression. Punk culture was a result of the cultural and social movements of the 1960s, it was adopted in music, fashion and lifestyle and opposed anything that was seen ‘normal’ by the mainstream society.

What Arnon and Borno have said echoe the concern of many cultural thinkers in India. It is the biggest market for Tiktok with more than 611 million users. The social media platform offered recognition to the working class, but many of them are at distress following the ban on the app on June 29, 2020. Cultural thinkers and activists have termed the decision as ‘an act of class warfare’.

Tiktok has been in the international geo-political headlines as India banned it following the unrest in the borders with China and the US president threatening to buy the app from ByteDance, the owning company of the platform, through American corporations. This was seen by the experts as a move in the ongoing USA-Chinese trade war.

Tiktok and Likee are apparently tailored to the taste of the working-class people. However, the dominant culture is particularly disapproving of these expressions and try to muzzle the freedom of expression of the classed ‘other’.

Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth.

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