Savitri and Sanatan Mahto were unlikely influencers. Sister and brother, they live on the edge of Nipania, a village in the Indian state of Jharkhand. It is remote from any city: if the siblings feel like eating at a restaurant, it entails half a day’s walk down a 15-mile-long dirt road, dotted with swamps.
While India’s Instagram elite presented a polished facade of overseas vacations and perfectly groomed cats, the Mahtos shot to fame dancing on TikTok, singing indigenous rhymes as floodwaters clogged their mud house. Over three years, their unvarnished, but joyful, depictions of village life amassed them 2.7 million followers on the short-form video platform.
When the Mahtos started using TikTok in 2018, they found they could earn decent money, and a certain level of celebrity. If they went to a restaurant, the owner would barely register their presence. Waiters, though, would approach to snap a selfie. In a gleaming motorcycle showroom last year in Dhanbad, their nearest town, the manager ignored Sanatan when he asked for a test ride — but a regular mechanic came up to congratulate him, requesting a shoutout.
At its peak in 2020, TikTok had 200 million users in India. What made it remarkable was the opportunity it offered for creators like the Mahtos, economically downtrodden and from marginalized caste backgrounds, who were otherwise invisible on the Indian internet. It allowed them to become bona fide pieces of the nation’s digital culture, and to build a career online.
That was taken from them when, in June 2020, the Indian government banned the platform, along with 58 other Chinese-owned apps, in retaliation for the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in a border clash.
What was a gutting blow for Indian creators has transpired to be a gift for Facebook, whose Instagram Reels, a competing short-form video platform, has grown swiftly to fill the vacuum. But Facebook’s expansion strategy involved courting upper-class and caste influencers, who set the tone for a very different online space. Critics say that Reels has replaced the textured, complex, and often inclusive creator community on TikTok with bland, aspirational content: an advertisement for a middle-class lifestyle unobtainable for Indians from marginalized communities, like the Mahtos.
“Instagram has been the place for a … fantasy of a better life; of fashion and better aesthetics,” said Divya Kandukuri, a 24-year-old anti-caste activist from Andhra Pradesh. “TikTok was a more democratic space, more acceptable to change.”
As social media spread in India, it replicated the class lines that divided wider society. TikTok launched in India in 2017 and soon became wildly popular, particularly among users — and creators — from outside the middle classes, who themselves congregated on YouTube and Instagram.
Among TikTok’s library of songs, which run in the background of its videos, were exuberant, regional Indian hits. It was a feature that users loved and couldn’t find on other platforms, which were built around mainstream U.S. and Bollywood cultural references. That, together with TikTok’s intuitive UX design and short, 15-second upload length, which lent itself to showing snatches of daily life, endeared the platform to rural users.
At the same time, TikTok users in India became accustomed to online harassment. In an infamous tussle with a YouTuber community in 2020, casteist remarks were directed at TikTokkers by the popular creator CarryMinati, calling them “cringey” and talentless.
But the huge audiences coming to the platform soon attracted advertisers. Leading brands, including fast-moving consumer goods suppliers like PepsiCo, adopted TikTok strategies to reach the youth market across India, looking to access the vast rural market. Creators benefited.
“[TikTok] democratized the creator economy and brought money to marginalized groups,” Sahil Shah, managing partner at WatConsult, a leading Indian digital agency, told Rest of World. Someone like Mahto could make $2,000 per month from brand partnerships, said Shah, compared to around $130 as a farm laborer.
Before the ban, India had four of the top 15 paid TikTokers around the world, according to HypeAuditor, an influencer analytics company. The firm located 7.7% of the total TikTok influencers in India. Top influencers could make around $25,000 per partnered post.
Then, in late June 2020, came the ban. Instagram Reels appeared almost instantly, in early July.
There was no question that Reels wanted to fill the vacuum left by TikTok. But rather than court the same creators who had driven the Chinese company’s success, Facebook, Reels’ owner, kick-started its launch campaign by courting a set of influencers from upper-class backgrounds, including Komal Pandey, Kusha Kapila, and Ammy Virk: “A catalog of aspiring lifestyle [examples] for middle-class and upper-middle-class Indians,” was how Dr. Rahul Advani, a research fellow at the University College London, described the launch to Rest of World.
Advani has studied the ways that the poorer strata of Indian society engage with the internet, particularly methods of self-expression, like selfies. There is a clear difference between Reels and TikTok, he said: Reels is for curators, not creators, which makes it a more upmarket space.
“The aesthetics of curation were defined very early on by people [with resources],” Advani said. That is, that first round of influencer recruits established the tone for future content.
To keep its curated look and feel, Reels has stricter requirements on quality. In its latest guidelines, Instagram announced a change in its algorithm, stating that it wouldn’t recommend videos that are blurry, bear a watermark or logo, or have a border around them. This raises the barrier to entry for users. Instagram did not respond to request for comment from Rest of World.
To achieve stardom on TikTok, Sanatan Mahto had only to access a low-end smartphone and a limited data connection. “My smartphone was so slow that I couldn’t upload a YouTube video on that. A 15-second was easy,” Sanatan said. He taught himself to use the TikTok app by playing around with the buttons, and never gave too much thought to the image he was presenting of himself.
“We never realized that [the elements in our] frame would make a difference. I never placed a plough or the cow dung in the frame,” Savitri, his sister, added. “This is my life.”
Divya Kandukuri, the anti-caste activist, was a devoted TikTok user who migrated to Reels after the ban. Describing the difference between platforms, she drew parallels to her first day at a privileged government-run college in New Delhi in 2014, when her classmates admonished her. Where they were eating was not a “canteen,” they said, but a “café.”
“TikTok was a canteen; Instagram is a café,” said Kankaduri. “But the canteen has better food, and the café serves costly coffee that not everyone drinks.”
WatConsult’s Shah said that the changes have effectively shut people like the Mahtos out of the creator economy.
“Tier three and tier four [creators] have lost, again,” he said. “On Instagram, to get 30 million followers, you have to be a Deepika Padukone,” referring to India’s highest-paid actress.
Reels has grown dramatically since it launched in India. Instagram itself has 210 million active users there, who are uploading 6 million short videos daily. Several desi, or local, alternatives of TikTok, have also launched. The largest of those is ShareChat’s Moj, with 2.5 million videos uploaded per day.
The short-video boom has helped boost the overall influencer economy. Rahul Vengalil, managing partner at agency Isobar India, told Rest of World that the share of marketing budget his clients devote to digital advertising has risen from 5% to 25%. Reels, unsurprisingly, is the home of premium brands like high-end skin care and accessories, Vengalil said — a break from TikTok, which would commonly feature ads for instant loans and cheap homewares.
But the India now reflected back in Reels — and, by extension, the majority of India’s short-video market — is unrecognizable to former TikTok stars and to many of the now-banned platform’s users.
A year after the ban, Sanatan Mahto remembers going to the restaurant nearest his home. The waiter came to him, he said, and asked in a curious whisper: “Where are you hiding these days? Where are the videos, brother?”
“Instagram,” Sanatan replied, with a grin. “And what’s that?” the waiter responded.
Instagram’s dominance in the short-video market isn’t yet assured. The landscape continues to shift, with a reported re-emergence of Snapchat, and a rise in the popularity of YouTube.
In their village, the Mahto siblings are still visited by fans. A YouTube vlogger duo — who arrived dressed in tight jeans and neat shirts — drove 62 miles to meet them, unannounced, in August, when Rest of World visited. To produce a quick Reel, the duo asked if Sanatan would like to perform an “Alors on Danse” trend; Sanatan wasn’t sure what they meant.
“I’m not able to connect with the songs in the trends on Instagram,” he later said, loitering on his pebbled porch, barefoot. “Samaj hi nahi aata hai.” (I cannot understand it.)
The Mahtos have found some success on Instagram, with Sanatan collecting around 482,000 followers and Savitri 137,000. They upload vlogs to YouTube. Comments praise the “rawness” of their content. But when well-meaning followers suggest that Sanatan smarten up his appearance to better suit the new platforms, he objects.
“I wanted to alter the idea that you are more than the [aesthetics]; you are what you do,” Sanatan said, rubbing his hands nervously. “But I think that’s not true.”