TikTok’s USP was that it allowed users to create content, as it was packed with editing tools, which Indian apps lack. Unless they allow original content to be made, these apps will be nothing more than video-hosting platforms. There were 59 Chinese apps that India banned on June 29 over privacy and security concerns. But it was the blocking of TikTok, the popular short-video app, that hogged the headlines and even caused an uproar at a time when anti-China sentiments were running high. The ban came two weeks after 20 Indian and an unspecified number of Chinese soldiers were killed in a bloody clash in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley along the Line of Actual Control. Overnight, the app with 200 million users, the highest in the world, was not available in India. The void left by TikTok was huge and its Indian alternatives like Mitron, Roposo, and Chingari made a big spalsh in app stores in no time. Roposo recently said it was adding 500,000 new users an hour and expected to cross the 100-million mark by the end of July. Mitron clocked 10 million downloads in two months as the call for the boycott of Chinese goods grew louder following the coronavirus outbreak and the border standoff. Chingari has grown from a few million users to 20 million. Impressive but nowhere close to TikTok. While Facebook-backed WhatsApp and Instagram have significantly more active users, TikTok spawned a new segment of creators and viewers in India. Owned by Chinese technology giant ByteDance, TikTok is also credited with democratising online space and giving a platform to millions of unrepresented Indians living in towns and villages. While TikTok’s relationship with China or the Chinese government continues to generate heat, there is no debating the fact that the app made shooting and uploading of videos effortless. Anyone with a camera smartphone could shot a small clip, layer it with music and upload it in no time, and that is where TikTok’s popularity lay. But do home-grown alternatives have it in them to be the next TikTok? 1 The secret recipe: a finely tuned algorithm Mitron, Chingari and Roposo don’t even come close to TikTok. Every social network or platform prioritises the content that a user sees frequently. The task of sifting these posts by user behaviour is done by an algorithm. The number of likes, comments, viewing time, repetitions, and followers are just some of the metrics used to gauge a video. The algorithm recognises a viewer’s interest and suggests new videos based on it. The feed is customised based on a user’s interaction with the app. For a first-time user, TikTok videos may seem random. But there is a method to this madness–the algorithm purposely pushes a variety of content to understand a user’s likes, dislikes and interests. After a few minutes, the feed gets customised, tailored to the user’s taste. TikTok even takes note of the background music you like, the effects or filters that you prefer and even the captions. It monitors almost everything to ensure the user is engaged and interested. Scroll, scroll, scroll is the mantra. Using an algorithm to retain users is well-know practice. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Spotify use algorithms but what sets TikTok apart is that it doesn’t miss anything. It offered millions of Indians, who find little space in social media, relatable content and content creators, all because of the algorithm. Something as mundane as a man eating chicken every day found a willing audience. Mocking an overbearing brother, a group of college students creating romantic—cringe-worthy for some– videos, everyone could generate content and reach hundreds of thousands of people in no time. Indian alternatives have a mountain to climb. They need a finely tuned algorithm to ensure high engagement on the platform. An algorithm like that of TikTok can’t be built in a few days, weeks or months. It takes a huge amount of data from millions of users to understand the functioning of the algorithm. Fine-tuning it takes even longer. TikTok’s handling of data is not without its share of controversy but that is for another day. Instagram or Twitter offers a seamless experience because their backend systems have gone through years of tweaking, improvements, and enhancements. Just like Rome, an algorithm takes time to perfect. 2 Editing tools TikTok is a short-video platform that allows users to interact directly but there is more. YouTube is also a video- hosting platform but it has few tools for editing. Users need third-party tools like Adobe Premiere to make videos. TikTok gained traction because it came packed with editing tools, unlike any other app. It offered background music and sounds, filters, stickers, presets, and visual effects. Any phone with a camera and 2GB RAM could compile a 15-second video, edit it, and push it on the platform. No need for additional gear or equipment. A YouTuber spends thousands on creating a setup that can churn out quality videos. Even Instagram or IGTV creators spend a lot on shooting and editing top-notch videos. These editing tools are missing from Indian apps like Mitron, Chingari, and Roposo. Browse their feeds and you find that most of the videos were shot and edited on TikTok or any other editor like Kinemaster. If these apps can’t help create content, they just can’t match TikTok. Unless these apps can produce original content, they’re video-hosting platforms and not a social video network. 3 Licensing, copyrights and moderation In its previous life, TikTok was Musical.ly and used to be a lip-syncing platform. It was being developed since 2014 and had 60 million monthly active users in three years. It was then acquired by ByteDance and renamed TikTok. Gradually, the lip-syncing app grew into a social platform. ByteDance spent $1 billion to buy the app and pumped in billions more to promote it. In 2019, the Beijing-based company committed $1 billion for the Indian market. It also launched a music-streaming app, Resso, in the country, highlighting the company’s commitment to the product and also its reach in the industry. It isn’t simple to forge music licensing deals. ByteDance has the money and the negotiating power pull it off. It took almost a year for streaming giant Spotify to sort out licensing issues with rival Warner Music Group. According to a Bloomberg report, ByteDance earned $3 billion while posting revenues of $17 billion in 2019. Indian app Mitron has received just Rs 2 crore in seed funding so far while Chingari is in talks to raise another $10 million. While it’s unfair to compare an established company like ByteDance to start-ups but these companies are eyeing TikTok’s market. And, time is of the essence– the vacuum won’t last long. India has is one of the world’s fastest-growing internet populations. India was the world’s second-largest online market in 2019, second only to China. India had more than 480 million internet users in 2018 and the figure is expected to grow to over 660 million users by 2023, according to Statista. A huge audience awaits them but these platforms need robust copyright and moderation teams. TikTok was sloppy in moderation and is facing increased scrutiny in other parts of the world over content and privacy concerns. Indian startups, too, will have to address data and privacy concerns. Mitron and Chingari have already faced scrutiny over privacy and data security. 4 Quick, Reels is here Instagram was testing a short-video segment called Reels in Brazil. Immediately after TikTok got banned in India, the company rolled out Reels as an in-built feature in the Instagram app. Within no time, Instagram users were creating original Reels. Instagram has hundreds of millions of active users, giving them a head start. It also has music rights, a wide range of filters, stickers, and effects via third-party developers, and most importantly, it has the cash to burn. It’s pretty much like TikTok but is not Chinese. Owned by Facebook, the social, networking giant has the right technological and financial muscle to protect its turf. YouTube is also said to be working on a short-video platform. Backed by Google, funds will not be a problem. These American companies have been in the game for long and know a thing or two about algorithms. It is the Indian companies that have a long slog ahead. 5 Get original Indian developers are chasing short-term gains and are unprepared to take on the American giants. Indian companies should follow the TikTok model and create original products. Creators have also burnt their hands by relying on a platform like TikTok only to see their hard work vanish in a matter of seconds. They would want to build their audience again but on a reliable platform like Reels or Google’s. India has done a phenomenal job of building cutting-edge systems and apps in the financial technology space. Companies like NPCI, Paytm and RazorPay have changed the payments industry on a scale that remains unmatched in the world. Anyone could have reverse engineered PayPal but these startups chose to be original and it worked. To be the next TikTok, Indian startups will truly have to “Atmanirbhar (self-reliant)”, both in thinking and, tech.