Since Monday night, Geet’s inbox has been filled with messages from eager fans across India.
Geet, who only uses his first name, says he was surprised when India banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese-made apps because he said they were a danger to the country.
After all, the former lawyer is now one of India’s many stars on TikTok, teaching “American English” and giving advice on relationships, and encouraging more than 10 million followers on her three channels.
Every day for the past year, Geet has uploaded 15 videos to his accounts, each generally 20 seconds long. Recording on her phone and a professional camera, she shoots up to 120 videos a day to make sure her pantry is never naked. The rest of the week is busy writing and editing your videos.
“I was completely unprepared when the news came. I mean, this is my life now. It’s my full-time job,” she told me.
His followers are distraught. “How can I learn English more?” one asked. “Who will motivate me now?” another wrote.
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Powered by cheap data and a young population, TikTok has captured some 200 million users in three years in India. The popular mobile app features fast, shareable videos, often intended for teens and other youth. Using filters, sounds, music, and hashtags, young Indians upload songs, dances, jokes, comedy skits, career tips, challenges, language lessons, and yoga.
These coexist with some videos that have featured hate speech, misogyny and casual violence. In some cases, users have been killed or injured while trying to record risky stunts, and the police have even tracked down and arrested gangsters who flaunt their lifestyles in the app.
With the videos largely 15 seconds long, the app allows videos of up to one minute, offering a snapshot of the life and times of young Indians, full of ambition and frustration.
“It is infinitely fascinating. Many underrepresented people have found a platform here. People with alternative sexualities express themselves freely. Women assert themselves. There are many very creative people on the platform,” says Amit Varma, writer and podcaster. , which teaches a course on TikTok.
Geet, for example, never dreamed of a life on TikTok. Born in India and raised in Seattle, she studied engineering and worked at a law firm before moving to the Indian capital, Delhi, with her parents to do social work. She says she worked with slum children and high-risk youth until she opened a TikTok account in February last year. “TikTok is an extension of what I used to do. Now, with a single video message, I can communicate with many more people and try to help them,” he said.
Most of her clients are very young and aspirational, she says. Many want to learn “American English”: one of their popular channels with more than six million followers tries to do so, using the Hindi language instructions.
A viral video on this channel shows Geet telling his followers what assorted footwear is called at home in English: flip flops, loafers, slippers, flat shoes, high heels.
In another, she corrects her mother’s pronunciation of words like breakfast, dessert, food, vegetables, and pears, using her American accent. Another video is about “seven ways to say happy birthday.”
“This is all supposed to be nimble, fun and educational,” she says.
Her other two channels offer relationship tips and motivating chats for young people, often based on the questions her followers send to her inbox. “The most common question I get is how to deal with a breakup. The next thing is what to do if my partner doesn’t give me time. Married people talk about marital conflict and domestic violence.”
TikTok, says Geet, has changed the lives of many people he meets. Advertisers woo users who have amassed massive followers. “Many of my friends depend on the app as their main source of income,” she says. “For me, I am happy if people recognize my work.”
An Uber driver in Delhi recognized her once and asked her to record a video on her mobile phone giving her son some advice “who was not studying much.” On another occasion in a shopping complex, she was approached by an executive who asked her: “Aren’t you the girl who teaches English on TikTok?”
Geet says the app has changed his life. At age 10, she suffered a spinal cord injury and has been a wheelchair user ever since. “It is a very equalizing platform. You see a lot of people with different abilities on TikTok who have been accepted,” she says.
Blocking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has been a stressful time for her and her followers. Before the shutdown began in late March, she joined her brother along with her parents in Seattle, from where she continues to make videos. To keep her followers engaged, she often broadcasts live and makes videos with games and puzzles. “It is a difficult time,” she says.
It got a little more difficult on Monday night. Geet went live on their channels to appease their eager fans.
“Don’t worry. Don’t lose your courage. Let’s wait. We believe the problem will be solved and we will meet again. Don’t lose hope and do nothing drastic.”
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