The social media landscape may seem limited to facebook posts by a medley of family and friends, politicians’ and activists’ virtue signaling on Twitter and the perfect vacations and decadent meals on Instagram but a younger generation is getting their daily humor dose on TikTok.
Trolling humor focused on Ethiopian politics and politicians is becoming more popular. Biruk W’s recent posts using the duet feature of TikTok have garnered a lot of attention outside of the app. His recent videos talking to political figures like Mengistu Hailemariam about missing socks and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed about coffee drinking habits have been viewed over 500 thousand times. These videos feel transgressive as public jokes regarding authority figures are likely to feel, humanizing these men when talking about innocuous issues and making light of the ostensibly serious.
Tinsae Wondimu is becoming more popular online under the name DagDan9, especially on Twitter as the go-to digital political humorist. “I didn’t even know I could say something that could make other people laugh. So I would say the quarantine boredom made me do it. I’m not still sure if doing a video is my thing but I’m doing it anyway because I’m in a financial crisis and want to make some money out of my jokes,” he remarked.
Tapping into the hypocrisy and absurdity of Ethiopian politics, Tinsae’s comedy has been featured on EBS TV. That motivated him to create a YouTube channel. He pointed out: “I’m interested in politics and politics is a great source for comedy. I wouldn’t say I have written as much political jokes as I want, fearing people could be offended by associating political figures with their ethnicity.”
The growth of social media platforms has been gradual in Ethiopia. The stay at home measures following the global pandemic have pushed many lives to the online sphere and the three months after March were registered as periods of growing social media use in the country. The pandemic has let Tiktok flourish among younger and more tech savvy users who spend their time home following the closure of schools and offices. Comedy, politics, news, beauty, fashion, motivation and technology are all little TikTok niche communities that have been steadily growing since March.
Yonatan Fasil also known as YONZIMA on TikTok and Instagram says he began making videos during the pandemic. He remembers: “I was staying at home and I got bored; so, I opened a TikTok account and started experimenting.” A second year computer science student, Yonatan was left unoccupied for months after schools closed in March this year.
His initial posts showed him playing an acoustic guitar; but over time, the content became more comedic and included his friends and fellow tiktokers. Shot using an iPhone 6s and edited with video leap, Yonatan’s posts are lighthearted, often situational comedies. These hilarious skits have been viewed thousands of times in the last few months leading Yonatan to begin his own YouTube channel.
Abel Mulugeta, also known as Life of Abel, has been highly active on all major social media platforms and Tiktok is not beneath his notice. Speaking of his followers, he stated: “I wouldn’t call myself an Influencer, but a lot of the people who follow my content have told me I was one. It’s a relatively new concept in our country, but one that has seen steady growth. My followers see my post about a new food spot and send me pictures of them there the next day. I go on a hiking trip and they’re already asking me to organize one for them and their friends.”
Life of Abel began on facebook and grew into a YouTube channel where Abel, along with other YouTubers and social media-inclined friends, go on trips, play pranks or lip sync to make trending hits. “I think most people know me for my collaborations with online peers that have now turned into some of my best friends. We went from a few collaborations in the beginning to creating vlogs of our daily lives. Our followers have even gone as far as calling us Ethiopia’s real life F.R.I.E.N.D.S,” says Abel, referring to the popular TV sitcom of the early 2000s.
Abel is hoping to capitalize on the space online marketing is creating for influencers and content creators. “I see the positive impact; so, now my work revolves around creating engaging digital content about my life that highlights my values to my audience. It’s been truly amazing to see the response and reception from people. Building a personal brand, developing content that resonates with the brand and then growing your audience base because of those contents has become a valuable commodity in this new digitally enabled world of marketing. A lot of opportunities have been opening up for me because of this as well. Companies, businesses and brands are all starting to realize the importance of working with an influencer with my kind of content,” he enthusiastically reflected on the acceptance his work has been gaining.
Mikias Terefe, another Tiktoker posting humorous content, says he’s considering doing it full time. He said: “I am getting sponsors and I am doing promotions; so, if it’s going to continue and grow that way, I might.” He has also been receiving sponsorships to advertise for different companies, putting logos in his videos or using a product. He says he’s been able to get 3,000 to 10,000 Birr sponsorships for TikTok content. This can make transitioning into a full time Tiktoker easier as the market for influencers is yet to grow.
Some are using the platform to reach a specific audience and hope significant viewership could push them into a mainstream career. Lydia Wondwossen is part of the bevy of attractive women on TikTok and Instagram attempting to break into the TV or modeling world. “During the stay at home, I watched lots of habesha tiktokers becoming successful; so, I found TikTok as a great platform to show my talent and explore myself. And through that, I want to develop my modeling career,” she explains. Although she has yet to reach the level of online views necessary for widespread popularity, Lydia stays active on social media.
Growing a following and creating content that consistently hits the right market is a hard formula on any other social media platform but TikTok’s For You page makes it easier for new creators with little following to suddenly go viral. The app collects data on location even when the user hasn’t included that information; so, the main feed is often tailored to the user’s interests.
Ease of use, especially the scrolling feature that builds a habit of flicking one finger to keep watching thousands of videos in one sitting, makes TikTok highly addictive. All videos are under one minute, with 15 seconds deemed to be an ideal length. The TikTok algorithm is designed to identify the type of content a user would most prefer, tracking attention time and frequency of watch. The recommendations on the For You page are optimized to keep eyeballs glued to the screen. A recent study found that a typical TikTok user spends about an hour each day but this can be significantly higher as users often misjudge how much time they’ve spent on the app. Scientists are concerned that apps like this may be damaging to young brains and are already lowering our attention span.
The dopamine rush of posting a new video and getting a lot of views or likes is what keeps people addicted to apps like TikTok. “It feels great but the feeling fades away super fast; so, I don’t really make too much of it. I just think of the next video to make,” says Yonatan. Many psychologists have often compared this effect to slot machines.
“It’s been great for someone like me that’s just now reaping the benefits of utilizing such a platform, or it can be used to do real harm to others – as we’ve seen in the past few months with the unrest in Ethiopia. It’s a delicate tool – one that needs to be navigated through balance & proper guidance. Or else, it would be easy to get lost in.” says Abel, commenting on Ethiopia’s internet culture.
As much as the internet has democratized access to information and limitless contact with people from all over the world, it is not without its setbacks. TikTok has been accused of harvesting user data without consent and suppressing content that is in conflict with the owner of the company ByteDance and the Chinese government. But the opportunities a platform like TikTok offers can be great for someone looking to promote their work or become internet influencers. As the Ethiopian media grows to accommodate younger creators, these content creators can redefine entertainment and change the media landscape.