TikTok has taken Nepal by storm
The woman rummages through her pantry.
Wheat flour? Check,
She cooks a family recipe, nimki for Tihar. Her daughter films her deep-frying the dough as they chat. Soon, the nimki recipe shows up on the For You Page of more than a million TikTok users.
In her everyday life, Anjana Aryal is a regular homemaker. But on TikTok, she conducts cooking masterclasses right from her kitchen for her more than 400k followers. When not cooking, she documents her daily life on the app.
"Food is a universal language. Maybe that is why my content resonated with so many people," says Aryal, showing us her best Home-Chef Award.
When her luscious lalmohan recipe video attracted watchers from Nepal and India to her account, she went from being a faceless TikTok creator to one of the Nepali heavyweights on the app. These days people on the road and in shops recognise her by her voice alone.
"Voice reaches people faster on Tiktok," Aryal explains, "people use my audio for their videos. It goes viral quickly."
When a user creates a Tiktok video, they can use any audio uploaded on the app: be it a chorus sung in an expensive studio or a recipe recorded from a smartphone. This feature has been integral to the success of musicians from international pop stars like Doja Cat to Nepali musicians like Wangden Sherpa.
Aryal's recipes are tried and tested by hundreds of other creators using her narration as voiceovers for their own videos.
"I can’t believe something I’d do for fun in lockdown would become this big," says Aryal, smiling.
TikTok's easy-to-use editing tools, the no frills aesthetic and a vast library of licensed music along with its powerful algorithm that helps discoverability on the For You Page (FYP) has helped blur the lines for many Nepalis to turn from being consumers to creators.
Ajashala Bajracharya, an undergraduate student who posts cosplay, gaming, and art content, also downloaded TikTok due to lockdown boredom. She started with arts and crafts, then posted cosplays and gaming.
TikTok's algorithm has connected her to others interested in the same niche interests as her. "I had a small friend circle before," remarks Ajashala. "Not anymore."
As she spent more time on the platform, Ajashala - like many Nepali TikTokers - adapted to trends. Quarantine TikTok saw the rise of POVs, lip-syncs, and dances. Now, Nepali people have switched to TikTok Live, an entrepreneurial gold mine.
Nepali content creators like Ansh Verma have accumulated millions of followers utilising TikTok Live. They host ‘Follow for Follow’ lives where they instruct hopefuls wanting to go Live to follow each other. The app requires creators to have a thousand followers to go live.
"Friends, you are following each other for yourself. After you get a thousand followers, you can earn gifts. TikTok algorithm boosts your account if you interact," says Chiranjibi Dhakal, scratching recharge cards number by number in his TikTok live.
Nepali people anxious over their visas tune into tarot readers shuffling cards. Lok-Sewa tuition and movie screenings happen daily on the app. All these lives prioritise 'gifters', encouraging viewers to send creators gifts, which are currencies in the virtual world of TikTok Live. Creators can redeem real money from the gifts. Consequently, TikTok live has become a source of income for many Nepali.
Nepali creators aren't eligible to apply to TikTok's Creator Fund, meaning they cannot earn money from views on Tiktok.
For creators like Ajashala who use TikTok for fun, it is not a big deal. Other creators like Aryal, however, have branched out to YouTube. Aryal used her TikTok fan base to kickstart her YouTube career. Her YouTube channel, Anjana’s Nepali Kitchen, is gathering steam.
Abhinav Bajracharya, a food vlogger on TikTok known for his slogan 'Mitho, mitho, mitho' (yum-yum-yum) also plans to expand his brand to YouTube.
The undergrad entered the competitive food scene in Nepali Tiktok with restaurant reviews. An ordinary student before TikTok, Abhinav now gets invitations from restaurants to come and try their food.
"I get many invitations, and they provide us everything for free," Abhinav says," In fact. I am returning from another restaurant right now."
To ensure enough content for his page, Abhinav goes to restaurants regularly. He claims that posting content daily is vital to keep his popularity on the app. Boosted by his existing audience, his newly created backup account for non-food content is also doing well.
"My original account is at risk. One more strike from TikTok and my account will get banned. That is why I created a backup," says Abhinav, "I have gotten three warnings for violating community guidelines already."
TikTok guidelines work in mysterious ways. Despite Abhinav's two violations being proven untrue, it still adds up. Creators can also get banned when they are falsely accused of breaking community violations. TikTok doesn’t explain why something is being taken down or shadow-banned and creators don’t get to defend themselves while appealing.
This is something American polyglot sociologist Amalia Rubin knows all too well. Her video educating people about the lost arts of Nepal got taken down for sharing the contact number of a museum. TikTok categorised the public number as private information. Rubin guesses she was most likely mass-reported for spreading awareness about this issue.
Rubin has dealt with targeted attacks before. Being a Jewish educator, she deals with anti-semitism on the platform regularly since extremist ideology runs rampant on the app. It manifests itself in the form of organised counter-movements.
TikTok has not been able to keep up with the constantly evolving hate symbols. Dog whistles, threats or terminology disguised to appear normal to the majority, goes undetected. And creators are more likely to be taken down from being mass-reported by an organised group.
“Tiktok is creating a space for people to harass and threaten creators, especially marginalised creators,” says Rubin.
Users using loopholes in the Tiktok system to get away with hate speech is not uncommon. TikTok doesn’t recognise Nepali curse words. It does nothing when Nepali anti-feminist hate accounts upload TikToks of young Nepali girls, criticising their appearance and speech or when vulgar comments flood an underage user’s notifications.
As trends evolve faster than moderators can keep track of, creators say the app needs think ahead to prevent extremists from sidestepping their effort to curb misinformation and hate among its closely-connected users.
But connectivity is also what attracts Nepalis to TikTok. Nepalis spam comments. They give gifts during TikTok Live to raise Nepal's ranking in country rank contests.
TikTok more than any other platform seems to have cohered Nepal and Nepali to the world. For Nepali people who lack representation, TikTok's affinity is exceptionally appealing.
This connectivity empowers content creators too. Rubin fundraised for the treatment of her Nepali student through TikTok. Aryal's travel TikToks promote local tourism, while Abhinav's brings business to local restaurants and Ajashala's TikToks inspire people to be unapologetically them.
Says Aryal, "I was Anjana to my friends, family, and community. Now, I am Anjana to so many people through TikTok. I am seen."