Think the social media phenomenon is just cringey dance routines and prank videos? Well think again.
Glamorous film shoots around the sun-kissed Aegean Sea is nice work if you can get it.
It beats the tedium of the daily grind, that’s for sure, and it’s exactly what India Sasha was up to just this week during an all-expenses-paid jamboree to Greece laid on by the Chinese social media giant TikTok and a glut of sponsors.
From anonymity just 15 months ago until she decided to upload her first clip from her bedroom, the Ballygomartin student and part-time ‘shot girl’ is now a fully paid-up star of the video-sharing social network with a following of more than a quarter of a million and close to 11 million likes.
But contrary to some of the more dated perceptions, the internet behemoth — which in just two years already dwarfs Twitter with close to a billion active monthly users, more than 100m of them in Europe — is not just for pranks, lip-synching clips, dance routines and funny videos.
Of course, all the unabashed silliness remains central to its appeal, it’s the first port of call for when Gen-Z is looking a laugh these days, but it’s also a place where some of Northern Ireland’s most upwardly mobile young tech movers and shakers are making their mark.
Fresh from buying her first house at just 19, fashion influencer Olivia Neill is the pin-up girl locally with more than one million followers, while the magic tricks uploaded by Joel M — he of the 11.4m following — have been liked a staggering 284m times.
And it’s that, the sheer scale of TikTok’s reach, which goes to the very heart of it. The figures involved are astronomical, a clarion call to marketeers at companies and corporations the world over, but also a chance for those lucky enough to see their content “blow up” — in TikTok parlance — to piggy-back along on its success.
Former school friends and rising entrepreneurs Matthew Morgan and Sean Casey have used their profiles to bolster their fledgling marketing and fitness companies respectively, while Roisin Thornbury’s make-up tutorials have spawned deals with brands like BPerfect, Voduz and Too Faced.
“TikTok is the kind of platform where you don’t need to already have a big following to get seen,” India Sasha tells Sunday Life, shortly before jetting off to Rhodes to create content with healthy snack bar brand Nature Valley.
“If the content is good and there is an audience wanting to see it, it will take you to it.”
Like most creators, India Sasha’s videos are a bit of fun, with her lively personality and natural warmth integral to her appeal.
But there’s a more noble motive underpinning her content, namely “to make online a kinder place for people that are different.”
The self-appointed ‘CEO of One Handed Humour’, she was born with a rare congenital hand defect — symbrachydactyly — and it’s her mission to educate, normalise and destigmatise the conversation around disability.
The 22-year-old, who is studying business at the University of Liverpool, says: “I started making videos about a year-and-a-half ago, in April 2020, and from there, my videos kept blowing up.
“And the main ones that we blowing up were the videos where I was doing something with my hand.
“So then I realised, like I have always wanted to do something about this, whenever I got myself into the right mindset and being positive with my hand, I wanted to amplify that in some sort of way, and TikTok presented that door to me which I didn’t even know existed to be honest.
“So then I just kept going with it because it gave me a career path and a way where I can actually do things that fulfil more than just my wallet, it also fulfils what I want to achieve in life.”
But of course, there’s money to be made here too.
As part of the TikTok creator fund, India Sasha gets paid by the level of engagement with her videos.
And there are other, more lucrative income streams too, with brand deals, sponsorship, collaborations and ‘giftings’ just some of the ways to monetise your profile.
“Whenever I get gifted stuff, I usually will wear it once but I don’t want to contribute to fast fashion so I’ll sell that on and that’s another way to make income,” explains India, who has worked with mega brands such as Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, Asos, Lush and Coca-Cola.
“I like working on social media so I will probably try and continue that because there is a real demand for it and so many brands still don’t know what to do with it so I hope I can do that and make a living out of it, and also achieve my philanthropic goal of normalising disability and making online a kinder place for people that are different.”
As her sojourn to Greece attests, it’s an enviable way of life, with recent videos showing India Sasha out on a shopping spree in Belfast — her poor dad weighted down with bags — and she and her friends visiting the capital’s newest trendy nightspot, Haymarket.
But if the label ‘influencer’ increasingly carries negative connotations, associated as it is with the vacuous and phony perfection of the world according to Instagram, India Sasha never takes herself too seriously, even if her content has a social conscience.
“I think TikTok is the kind of opposite of what you’d find on Instagram,” she says.
“On the platform, you don’t get people really trying to perfect their image, it’s really raw, it is what it is really.
“A lot of things in life are just funny and I try to put that into my videos and you find that comedy does really well on that platform.
“And that’s something that I do. I’ve always been told to be genuine, be true to yourself, so I just go with the flow, my videos usually come to me like a minute before I make them so they are natural and raw.
“I try and do it in a way that I’m not taking away the value by making fun of me, I want people to laugh with me, and in laughing with me, they are actually learning.
“People don’t even realise that while I’m making these jokes and they are laughing, they are actually learning stuff about disability so to be able to educate people in a really light-hearted and funny way is a really valuable thing which I really love doing.”