Did you know that in June of 2020, `India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued bans on widely popular apps – including TikTok 0 and services to protect the “sovereignty and integrity of India.”

TikTok’s end in India opened many an opportunity for several startups. On the same day that the government issued its ban on Chinese apps, Bengaluru-based Mohalla Tech released Moj, an unapologetic TikTok clone. A month later, in July, came another knockoff, Mumbai-based MX TakaTak, which garnered a billion daily views in 30 days while championing a catchy slogan: “Made in India, for you.” Two months later came Josh, a similar video platform that topped a billion views in 45 days.

Desperately looking to attract the 200 million users TikTok left behind the bingeing of new apps wreaked havoc amongst the creator economy. In India, the ban on TikTok handed an immense opportunity to the would-be challengers to TikTok’s throne. But for creators, the ban’s imposition forced them to chase a fragmented audience across a chaotic marketplace. The local apps—which can be slow to load or glitchy at times compared to TikTok—boast a dazzling array of investors, including Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Tiger Global Management.

Walling India off from TikTok gave the upper hand to Modi, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization. With his “Make in India” campaign, aimed at foreign corporations, Modi dealt a punishing blow to TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance. India was TikTok’s largest market back then—ahead of even the U.S., where it had around 100 million users at the time. “When TikTok crossed 2 billion global downloads, India was at the forefront of this growth,” accounting for 611 million downloads, according to Shubham Munde, a research analyst at Market Research Future in Pune.

Until Instagram Reels came onto the map, the disappearance of TikTok was an unstable sea for many creators. Interestingly, before Reels came into the picture, many in India considered Instagram merely a playground for wealthy Indians, where “rich-kid” users in their 20s and 30s flaunted their private jets, luxury watches and sports cars, Bhasin said. TikTok, by contrast, positioned itself as an app for the masses, and its proprietary in-app editing software and filters made it simple for everyone to pick up.

India’s decision to boot TikTok and the other Chinese apps “was certainly meant to be a retaliatory measure to express its displeasure with transgressions by Chinese troops on the border,” said Mohamed Zeeshan, a former adviser to India’s UN delegation and the author of “Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership.”

Preferring to divert attention away from the violence, the Indian government said its targeting of Chinese apps was largely due to privacy and security concerns. There was precedent for this rationale: In 2019, the government ordered Google Play and Apple’s App Store to block TikTok downloads for two weeks due to concerns regarding pornography, cyberbullying and child endangerment.

With TikTok no longer available in India as of June 2020, local apps like Moj, MX TakaTak, Josh, Chingari, Mitron, Bolo Live (then called Bolo Indya) and Roposo rushed in to take its place. The first three, which gained the largest followings, came from well-established parent companies: Moj was developed by Mohalla Tech, an eight-year-old tech unicorn known for its widely used chat tool, ShareChat; the Times Internet—the digital arm of one of the largest media conglomerates in India—created MX TakaTak; and Josh emerged from Bangalore-based VerSe Innovation, the company behind popular news aggregator Dailyhunt.

With TikTok’s exit, and rumblings of Reels’ early entry into India, Ankush Sachdeva, co-founder and CEO of Mohalla Tech’s ShareChat, did the unthinkable—he launched the new Moj app in a little more than a day. “From building the app in 30 hours to becoming #1 in 6 days,” he tweeted in July 2020.

Between January and March 2021, MX TakaTak saw roughly 84.5 million downloads with Moj and Josh closely behind at around 71.1 million and 62.5 million, respectively, according to Sensor Tower. Mohalla Tech and VerSe seized the moment to add to already sizable war chests. Through 2021, Mohalla Tech and VerSe both raised nearly $1 billion each from a variety of big tech investors. ShareChat’s valuation soared to nearly $4 billion, according to PitchBook data, while VerSe’s valuation reportedly approached $3 billion.

With Reels taking off, MX TakaTak and Moj decided to join forces in February 2022, agreeing to a merger that would create the largest video-sharing platform in India. MX TakaTak is no longer available in app stores, and the apps have since been combined into Moj. Pandya says despite the merger, which combines an impressive 450 million active users, Instagram remains king. “Compared to Instagram Reels, I think the quality is still questionable,” she said. Both Moj and Josh remain in India’s top 10 ranking for social apps on Google Play, while Facebook and Instagram occupy the first two spots.

Content creators in India are also experimenting with YouTube Shorts, but even with its smooth monetization process, it still hasn’t taken off like Reels has, according to Pandya. “YouTube Shorts is creating a wave—slowly,” she said. “It hasn’t yet lured the mobile-first users like Reels has because of its UI.”

The numbers show just how well Instagram has assimilated itself into India—and how fast it accomplished the feat. India was contributing almost 40% of Instagram’s downloads by the end of 2021, about double the figure from the time of TikTok’s demise, Munde also confirmed. By early 2023, Instagram’s user base in India had climbed to 229.6 million, making it the largest audience for the app worldwide.

As a similar ban is being threatened in the US, this case study is useful to pay attention to.

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