Since Monday night, Geet’s inbox has been filled with messages from eager followers from across India.
Geet, who uses only his first name, says he was surprised when India banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps because he claimed to be a danger to the country.
After all, the former lawyer is now one of India’s many TikTok stars, teaching “American English” and giving relationship advice and lively conversations to more than 10 million followers on her three channels.
Every day for the past year, Geet uploaded 15 videos to his accounts, each 20 seconds long. Filming on her phone and on a professional camera, she records up to 120 videos a day to ensure her pantry is never naked. For the rest of the week, she is busy writing and editing her videos.
“I was completely off guard when the news came. I mean, this is my life now. It is my full-time job,” she told me.
His followers are disturbed. “How can I learn more English?” one asked. “Who’s going to motivate me now?” another wrote.
Powered by cheap data and a young population, TikTok has won over 200 million users in three years in India. The popular mobile app features fast and shareable videos, usually catering to teenagers and other young people. Using filters, sounds, music and hashtags, young Indian people send songs, dances, games, comedy skits, career tips, challenges, language classes and yoga.
They coexist with some videos that feature hate speech, misogyny and casual violence. In some cases, users were killed or injured trying to record risky acrobatics, and the police even tracked and arrested thugs displaying their lifestyles on the app.
The largely 15-second videos – the app allows videos of up to one minute – provide an overview of the lives and times of young Indian people, full of ambition and frustration.
“It is infinitely fascinating. Many under-represented people have found a platform here. People with alternative sexualities are expressing themselves freely. Women are asserting themselves. There are many very creative people on the platform,” says Amit Varma, writer and podcaster. , who teaches a course on TikTok.
Geet, for example, never dreamed of a life at TikTok. Born in India and raised in Seattle, she studied engineering and worked in 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 young people at high risk until opening 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 reach a lot of other people and try to help them,” she 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 this, using instructions in Hindi.
A viral video on this channel shows Geet telling his followers what the varied footwear at his home is called in English: slippers, shoes, slippers, sneakers, high heels.
In another, she corrects her mother’s pronunciation of words like breakfast, dessert, food, vegetables and pears, using her strong American accent. Another video is about “seven ways to say happy birthday”.
“All of this should be fast, fun and educational,” she says.
Its two other channels offer relationship advice and motivational conversations for young people, usually based on the questions their followers send to their inbox. “The most common question I get is how to deal with a breakup. The next is what to do if my partner isn’t giving me time. Married people talk about marital conflict and domestic violence.”
Geet says that TikTok has changed the lives of many people she knows. Advertisers attract users who have accumulated many followers. “Many of my friends depend on the app as their main source of income,” she says. “For me, I’m happy if people recognize my work.”
An Uber driver in Delhi recognized her once and asked to record a video on her cell phone, giving some advice to her son “who was not studying much”. Again at a shopping complex, she was approached by an executive who asked her, “Aren’t you the girl who teaches English at TikTok?”
Geet says the app has changed his life. At age 10, he suffered a spinal cord injury and has been a wheelchair user ever since. “It’s a very equalizing platform. You see a lot of people with disabilities in TikTok who have been accepted,” she says.
The blockade to prevent the spread of the coronavirus was a stressful period for her and her followers. Before the blockade began in late March, she joined her brother and parents in Seattle, where she continues to make videos. To keep her followers engaged, she usually 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 his channels to appease his eager followers.
“Don’t worry. Don’t lose your nerve. Let’s wait. We think the problem will be solved and we will meet again. Don’t lose hope and don’t do anything drastic.”