A massive youth bulge combined with scant nationwide opportunities for upward social mobility is the twin force driving the crazy popularity of TikTok or other social media platforms among millions of poorly or partially educated young working class and lower middle class Pakistanis. By becoming ardent consumers of social media, these young people are trying to beat the dismal dynamics and the largely ascriptive logic of sharp social stratification in the country. However, behind the glitz of facile fame and quick buck of Pakistan’s social media boom lurk stark social realities. Let us cast a stone into these murky waters and see what surfaces.
Content production of Pakistani TikTok users reveals many contradictions in our society. Most local TikTok videos are a strange melange of sexual market value (SMV) enhancement techniques like the fetishization of the human body, grandstanding, peacocking, shoddy imitations mostly of Bollywood stars on canned Indian music. The use of Indian songs for prancing, dancing, and romancing in these videos reveals itself to be an act of self-hate in which these poor souls literally dance to the tunes of the enemy. This is a classic case of bad conscience suffered due to the secret lionizing of what is politically castigated.
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What are the underlying problems created by TikTok?
Even most expressions of goodwill espoused on social media by our bigtime home celebrities for stars across the border also seem to harbor furtive longing for the dawning of that day when the cooling of the political temperature or thawing of the ice on the subcontinent would turn these little unctuous tributes into the strong currency of cross-border collaborations with their attendant perks. It seems this polar disorder, consisting of the critique of the adversary’s politics but acclaim of its cultural production, is the order of our modern cultural scene as a whole.
Anyhow, cheap moralism colored with easy displays of patriotism is also thrown in for good measure in local social media content. These short-form shows of love for the country are easy because true patriotism is tough, takes years of studying, working, and thinking hard in the long patient pursuit of individual and national development. It means delayed gratification to gain superior material and psychological rewards far into the future. It means resumption of the uphill climb every time the daily grind is disrupted, which leads in the end to greater socioeconomic value and higher levels of prestige.
However, the TikTok variety of personal satisfaction offers on-the-go discounts for frivolous pleasures and monetary compensation for each act of the surrender of self-respect. It has no thought for the morrow because these young people’s lack of 21st-century skills and competencies has consigned them to a subaltern existence anyway. Stuck nearly permanently on the lower rungs of the social ladder, they package their loss of dignity into low-cost entertainment.
Symbolically, these videos become howls of desperation at the realization of the stark fact that their lives are not going anywhere, that society for them has become a blind alley, that they have missed the bus, because their formative years were wasted between a ramshackle educational system and, for the most part, a toxic home environment. Don’t let yourself be mistaken by the stock festive gestures and expressions of mirth in these videos. Lift the ‘painted veil’ to notice the specters of anger, fear, and bewilderment madly racing across their faces.
They feel the dread of someone who has just found out that they are about to be pushed over the edge. These kids behave in these videos with the same madcap urgency that children show shortly before the joy land is about to close. They want all the high jinks in the last 10 minutes.
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TikTok consumes and generates good money too
Economically, TikTok money enables counter-elite conspicuous consumption from below. Money is splurged on designer clothes, overpriced trinkets, sojourns of domestic or outbound tourism, expensive rides, TikTokers’ conventions, and smartphone distribution during fan outreach.
For global captains of digital industries, commanding the mastery of big data analytics, AI, and quantum computing, the social media capers of millions, even billions, become the base metals which the algorithmic alchemy turns into the gold of preference forecasting trends for shaping massive choice architectures of social collectives.
At the political level, in a curious 21st-century inversion of the classical 19th century critical aphorism about the incapacity of French small land-holders to act as a cohesive social group, which declared, ‘They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented’, the young Pakistanis take to TikTok realizing that they must represent themselves, be it through their ludicrous social media antics since they subliminally know they won’t be represented politically in a meaningful sense.
This is a fitting cultural tribute to a political system in which proceedings of the house, in the provinces and at the center, are periodically suspended, amidst scenes of democratic fisticuffs, participatory free-for-alls, and episodes of collective liberal cussing. In such moments, the spectacle becomes a debacle and vice versa.
Read more: IHC refers TikTok ban issue to federal Cabinet
Last but not the least, laggard societies generally have a habit of thinking, though erroneously, that high levels of low-end technological or digital consumption will magically remediate low levels of technological development. It is like a car driver hoping that driving someone else’s car 12 hours a day for years on end will one day make him a car maker.
Ali Shah is the Head of Research at the NUST Institute of Policy Studies and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.