Rearview | What Unites the World Record Egg and Weeping Users of TikTok India?


Rearview | What Unites the World Record Egg and Weeping Users of TikTok India?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Years ago, when I was a bit of a cocky knowitall, I went through a snark phase. Having just discovered the power of turning up my nose at anything vaguely popular – I was not 25 yet – I sniped at everything from Bollywood to religion in an attempt to be the eyeroll girl. Around that time, I bought a bag from a Pondicherry boho shop, with a screen-printed calendar art-style picture of the goddess Saraswati. The picture was sequinned, the saturation high, and the resolution low – it had an overall gaudy effect, and in all honesty, was a little bit ugly. I, however, had conflated being ironic with being cool.

That bombed spectacularly.

Everywhere I went, people stopped me to pay their respects to the goddess. They’d look upon it with utter devotion and touch the picture with half-closed, reverential eyes. On my daily ride to work on the Delhi Metro, fellow commuters would take one look at the veena-playing Saraswati and vacate their seats for me as if I were her hamsa vahan. Everyone missed the irony that, quite frankly, existed only in my head – for most non-hipsters, the bag was an earnest showcasing of my piety.  

“One person’s kitsch can be another person’s naive aura,” wrote Stjepan Mestrovic in the 1991 book The Coming Fin De Siècle. One person’s kitsch was another person’s Ma Saraswati.

I am constantly reminded of this while walking through a forest of TikTok videos clogging up the internet. The spiritual successor of Dubsmash is an app that allows users to create short-form mobile videos – naturally, most of its Indian users turn to Bollywood to express themselves through videos shot at awkward angles in complete contravention of the principles of light and good taste. So there are piles upon piles of young Indian men, dangling off handpumps while singing Kumar Sanu songs and attempting to replicate every Shah Rukh Khan gesture and dance move in mustard fields. Possibly the most popular among these is its own genre, riding in cars with boys singing Yo Yo Honey Singh songs about alcoholism. These are offset by flat-out creepy videos of older men imitating Amrish Puri’s worst eyeball-baring dialogues. The women? The women tend to stick to increasingly escalating variations on the “mera pehla pyaar adhoora reh gaya, Rifat Bi” scene from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

The staggering variety and number of these videos is only complemented by the number of pages dedicated to belittling them. Facebook pages like Reptiles of Kurla and the descriptive, Boys Who Cry Passionately on Musically India, pour heaps of scorn on the creators – who often seem to be in rural, semi-urban, or lower-middle-class settings – in the comments section. Scorn that, honestly, is a bit more severe than necessary for earnest performances that prominently feature snot.

But what about the value of hate? For the internet, hate is a currency too.

Where does the mockery come from? From a place that clearly signals privilege. From an elevated perch where the commenter can safely say, look, I might not be much, but at least I am better off than that guy who is badly lip-synching to an Altaf Raja song. At least I have good taste. Picasso – if we’re still allowed to quote him – said “Good taste is the enemy of great art.” I doubt that anything produced on TikTok is in danger of being considered great or art, but “good taste” is irrelevant to the thousands of users of the app whose work is devoid of irony. It is taste that doesn’t stand in the way of self-expression.  

One person’s ridiculousness is another person’s TikTok video.

Perhaps the biggest grouse of the people dissing TikTok is that the internet can make literally anything famous. I wonder how many of them voted for the egg. Earlier this week, the participative nature of the internet peaked, when people all over the world banded together to unseat the most-liked post on Instagram. Kylie Jenner’s post about her daughter was surpassed by a stock photo of an egg that went on to become the most-liked Insta post ever.

Yup. The same internet that led to the proliferation of the Arab Spring and came together to help Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun escape her abusive Saudi family, also gathered to fund the world’s largest jock strap. This week, it bonded over yet another inanity. Last I checked, the picture had 48 million likes – the most on any online post ever. But the best summary of the bizareness of the phenomenon came from Sergey Platonov, the photographer of the egg picture, who in an interview with Esquire magazine that tracked him down, said, “I think the value of ‘likes’ is exaggerated.”

But what about the value of hate? For the internet, hate is a currency too. The value of hate, or at least some form of mild fascinating revulsion, is what propels the self-aware cringe antics of Rakhi Sawant and her once-beau Deepak Kalal. It also possibly propelled Jadavpur university professor Kanak Sarkar to put up his controversial comments comparing virgin women to sealed cold drink bottles. Sarkar must have anticipated some measure of bile for his idiotic views – he is, after all, a professor of international relations – even if he didn’t anticipate losing his job. He must have been gunning for what the New York Times describes as “microfame” on social media, when he decided that the “educated youth” of this country were in need of “Value Oriented Social counseling”. Distinguishing yourself on the internet, after all, is difficult. Perhaps Sarkar presumed this anachronistic éclat was the way to do it. Because one person’s notoriety is another person’s fame.

Whatever it is, there’s only one certainty – it won’t last very long. Just ask Kylie Jenner.