TikTok ban won’t stop Nepali netizensWhy TikTok was different and what next after the platform was blocked by the government
Nepal’s netizens received an unwelcome gift from the government this Tihar: a blanket ban on TikTok, the only Asian-born major global social media platform that has 1.5 billion users globally.
In Nepal, Gen Z audiences and digital natives from small towns and villages are expected to miss it the most, as it was their most preferred social media channel for creative self-expression, self-promotion. It was the online outlet that offered emotional empowerment with a convenient editing setup and easy upload process.
With AI-generated audio narration and simple templates, TikTok keeps itself uncomplicated enough to appeal to all kinds of users, ranging from casual creators to brand-focused influencers. No wonder, its use among Nepalis is an estimated 80% of all net users.
TikTok is a beast like no other. A catchy trending song with a synchronised dance video of lip-syncing twins plays on full-screen for 20 seconds, and without a moment's pause. This means no video ad to interrupt the experience.
The feed throws up another short, bite-sized comedic video of a young Nepali girl pretending to be her dad, ending with a silly punchline and a cackling SFX laugh track. Next appears an elaborate but sped up tutorial on how to apply lip colour that gives the look of fuller lips, coupled with pleasant pop music.
Another, and another, and another. An endless scroll, much like the home feed of any other social media platform, with a powerful algorithm that gobbles up hours without discrimination.
TikTok feeds the brain with shots of dopamine, with every swipe making way for more freshly uploaded videos. The Chinese-owned mega app easily rivals cigarettes and alcohol brands with easy access, little to no physical traces of addiction, and the fact that it is completely free for unlimited usage.
TikTok’s rise prompted competing apps to imitate its addictive, easy-to-consume content format by launching products with copycat features such as Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts. These features use the same psychological strategy on humans to keep fingers swiping and keep eyes on the app for longer.
But there is something that makes TikTok much bigger, more special, or more dangerous depending on how you look at it: its secret algorithm.
Upon closer inspection, TikTok is not all light-hearted LOLs and difficult dance challenges. It claims to regularly take down inappropriate, harmful and violent content, but it has been accused of pushing questionable clips to teenagers, such as videos promoting eating disorders, self-harm or depression.
Vulgar comments seen by underage users should make parents wary of the platform. It only takes a few hours for TikTok to capture how a user is feeling, whether they are happy or sad, and even whether they are sad because of a romantic breakup or perhaps mental depression by sneakily feeding related videos at regular intervals.
The algorithm pinpoints the user’s emotional state by tracking how long they linger over a video, whether they watch it until it ends or whether they drop off (and if they do, at what point), how they engage with it (do they like, follow or repost) and so on.
In economics, this could be called demand forecasting. But the algorithm has a voracious appetite for data and learns fast, using everything it learns to give back the user relevant content that, in turn, feeds the user’s appetite.
The wild side of TikTok’s secret algorithm is also what makes it attractive for those seeking fame and following. A singer with raw talent from Baglung, a professional dancer from Bhairawa, a content creator from Parbat, a home cook from Kathmandu – these are all real personas who have leveraged the app to promote their talent, gain online popularity or push their small businesses to new audiences by spending lots of time and zero money.
For many, including disaster victims and women stuck in domestic working environments, TikTok was a bright, beaming bridge to the outside world. For them, the ban is particularly brutal. TikTok is a place of excitement, entertainment, and yes, escapism from the daily grind.
The cherry on top is TikTok’s ability to help a random video gain traction, without an easily identifiable pattern, making it tough to crack the algorithm unlike Instagram or YouTube.
The TikTok ban has raised valid concerns about citizens' right to information and freedom of expression, and it is typical of the government to ban the app instead of introducing regulatory policies or imposing taxes.
This ‘ban what you don't understand’ approach is familiar, and the reason why cryptocurrency never really took off in Nepal. There was a puzzling lack of credible justification for the ban, only that it ‘endangered Nepal’s social harmony’. Nepal has yet to run an effective digital media literacy campaign or social media health program to encourage users to be discerning content consumers, and make them aware of app settings like one-hour time limits to combat addiction.
The TikTok ban is a threat to Nepal’s internet freedom and freedom of expression, but that is not the only danger. Everything is forever on the internet, yet nothing is. Content is available for permanent viewing unless deleted by the original uploader (plus, copies and screenshots may prove removal redundant).
But people’s attention spans and habits keep shifting and user behaviour trends are just that, trends. Platforms keep changing and audiences keep moving, but the quest to find one’s own digital space to proudly curate and to connect with strangers over common values remains.
Humans are social animals that enjoy validation and to form communities, no matter the medium. If a road is blocked, people will either find a different route or build a new one. Netizens will find ways around the TikTok ban to fulfil their emotional needs, find a different app to latch onto, or maybe even create a new one.
India survived the TikTok ban, and unless the ban is revoked in a sudden, positive turn of events, so will Nepal. Every social media giant has its day, as we saw with Facebook’s 18-year reign before it started declining in popularity in 2022. When their parents joined Facebook, millennials swiftly moved to Instagram, where they could create private accounts and share their authentic lives, or curate their alternate personas.
Now, Instagram is also populated with family and relatives, and Meta has equipped the app with features that makes it the closest competition to TikTok.
Meanwhile, Snap, the Gen Z favourite, is still around, quietly thriving without making too much noise, which perfectly suits its features. Snapchat’s ephemeral nature of content – it was the first of many apps to allow ‘disappearing’ content, a feature Facebook and Instagram have copied with the Stories feature.
This makes it the ideal platform for Gen Z, especially young teenagers with secret social lives and a priority to stay low-key, to avoid getting caught by their family.
Somewhere in Nepal, as we speak, developers could be working on the next TikTok, similar to Moj, Josh, MX Takatak and many apps that came up in India soon after TikTok’s exit. Homegrown TikTok alternatives could potentially enjoy the added advantage of no geopolitical data privacy concerns or propaganda suspicions.
And if the app makers are creative about it, culturally relevant touches to tempt the average Nepali into welcoming the new obsession into their home screen with open thumbs.