Last year, 23-year-old Sakshi Shivdasani, a Mumbai-based model at the time, took her first steps into digital content creation by trying to meme herself. Using behind-the-scene footage from fashion shoots and awkward poses from her finsta (or private secondary Instagram profile, if you’re one of the uninitiated), Shivdasani tried to figure out a way to make humorous content that could set her apart from the droves of fashion and beauty influencers who merely post variations of Lightroom-filtered photos in the name of content. It was only when she joined TikTok early this year that she first found her calling.
“TikTok had this trend where people would use song lyrics as the punchline, but since I don’t follow too much trendy music, I began using my own voice,” Shivdasani told VICE. “People were just like ‘what’s up with her voice’ [because they found it annoying]. And so I decided to keep making videos where I was talking, initially, just as a way to trigger the haters.” Today, the Gen Z content creator with a nasal drawl has more than 155,000 followers, and gets thousands of views for her videos, which are usually no longer than a minute.
“I just began talking to the camera and ranting about things from my perspective, often caricaturing myself, which people found amusing,” she said.
Shivdasani is among a growing tribe of Gen Z creators who are earning millions of views and paid, branded collaborations for content that is essentially, for the lack of a better word, shit talking.
Amid shrinking attention spans and deep familiarity with the internet and its tools, the next generation of creators offer opinionated observations and confessions on everything from trending news to Indian family culture to school-day nostalgia. These creators also generally stick to time limits that are between 15 to 30 seconds, and churn out videos that have a quick, snappy pace. “It’s sort of like an observational comedy monologue, where we set a premise, and then exaggerate the situation with our punchline,” Vishnu Kaushal, a 23-year-old content creator with more than 388,000 followers told VICE.
Kaushal, who started out by making longform YouTube content, realised how videos of him ranting on a platform like Instagram could be turned into a sellable product, after a video of him venting about the most annoying questions people ask about quarantine landed 1.3 million views.
Kaushal points out that while creators do still make comedy sketches that are longer than a minute, 30-second rants have become an area of focus for Gen Z creators after the emergence of Instagram Reels.
“Acceptance of this casual content only came this year because it’s an entirely new format,” Simran Kulkarni, a 22-year-old marketing professional who also creates content on the side, told VICE. “We had people doing stand-up or character sketches before, but this format of rants is something unique, and became hugely popular because of TikTok. Its audience expanded after everyone shifted to Reels.”
Soon after India banned the Chinese short-video making app TikTok, citing security concerns in the aftermath of border skirmishes with China, Instagram Reels became an important avenue for many English-speaking creators who had lost thousands of followers on TikTok overnight after the ban—especially as Instagram too tweaked its algorithms to ensure that its TikTok clone got a higher reach. Because Instagram has always been elitist, Reels too has been looked upon as a cooler, more woke version of TikTok—though this has come at the cost of edging out content coming out of smaller towns and cities.
“While I had 15,000 followers on TikTok when it got banned, I could never see a future on that platform, because of how bad its reputation is in India. But when Instagram launched Reels, it was something I could see myself doing long term,” said Agasthya Shah, an 18-year-old content creator whose followers shot to 156,000 within a span of two months. Shah, who is one of the youngest content creators going viral at the moment, pointed out that shortform videos tend to have a higher appeal for a generation whose projected attention span lasts eight seconds. “We’ve grown up with social media and the internet, and so, we feel entitled to our opinions, and aren’t afraid to speak our mind,” he said, explaining why younger audiences find these random rants relatable.
A common pattern among most Gen Z creators isn’t just the ability to give opinions on a diversity of topics. For many, the idea is also to put themselves out there in an uninhibited way that is authentic, and therefore, engaging.
“The type of comedy content that appealed to the general audience earlier was mostly based on the creation and portrayal of various characters to showcase a better perspective of a comedic situation,” Niharika NM, a 23-year-old creator who gets up to 8 million views for her rant-style comedy videos, told VICE. “I think what’s different now is that the audience just wants to know the creator for who they are and their personality, which I think is incredible.”
Having grown up being constantly told to “tone down” her personality, content creation became an outlet for Niharika to express herself in a way she felt she couldn’t in reality. “The biggest change in my life is the fact that my audience no longer thinks I’m a person. They now call me ‘a mood’.”
For Gen Z creators, being relatable also means being unafraid to show the internet their real selves. “We’re literally in our sweatshirts with our hair tied back and no makeup. We’re sitting in front of a selfie camera in our homes and just being chill,” said Shivdasani, stressing that one of the key differentiating points for Gen Z content is that they don’t need any heavy-duty production to make their videos. “We’re just out here making fun of ourselves, and people are vibing,” she said.
In fact, another factor that sets apart Gen Z content is that these videos are steeped in a self-deprecatory style of humour. “My videos are just me acting like myself while I crack jokes on myself. I’m all about that self-burn,” 20-year-old Aqeel Hyder, a marketing and international relations student who manages to rack up an average of million views for his videos while still in college, told VICE.
For many Gen Z-ers who have grown up with the advent of the internet, self-deprecating jokes have also evolved into a defence mechanism to protect themselves against trolling on social media. “If you are laughing at yourself, you won’t feel bad if someone else also laughs at you,” agreed 18-year-old Shah. For these creators, the ability to laugh at themselves is also a way to avoid alienating their audience.
“We do get hate sometimes because trolls like to think that we are doing ‘timepass’, without considering the amount of thought that goes into even a 30-second video,” said Kulkarni, who is also a social media strategist.
As a generation that’s grown into a diverse content space which is currently dominated by cringe culture, Gen Z creators also tend to have a bolder outlook while dealing with haters.
“Many millennial creators are not comfortable with doing videos on certain topics or can’t concise their thoughts, but Gen Z creators just don’t care. They’re fearless, and can express themselves in less than 30 seconds, which allows them to own the space,” Santu Mishra, a social media consultant who runs an agency to help budding creators grow, told VICE. Mishra, who has been in the content creation industry for more than five years, also credits the rise of Gen Z creators with their ability to rapidly respond to trending news. “They also follow a linear narrative with specific interests which makes it easy for everyone to understand them. Sakshi talks about relationships and dating, or Vishnu will talk about Punjabi culture and make woke content. They have a unique voice on set topics, and their audience appreciates that.”
For this new generation of creators, virality comes with an accessibility that can either make them famous overnight, or leave them looking for more than their 15 seconds of fame. For many creators, lockdown-prompted boredom was a big advantage that allowed them to level up their views and followers. This was largely because many people replaced their social lives with social media, allowing the rant-style videos to stand in for conversations in the age of increasing Zoom fatigue.
But it also begs the question: How long could this trend last? And what would it mean for the creators who get known for this style?
For many creators, their young age and ability to juggle multiple professions while making these videos also makes them less vulnerable to worrying about becoming obsolete. “As a Gen Z creator, I think it’s important to adapt to whatever platform and content the audience wants to consume,” said Shah. “If Instagram shuts down, people will stop consuming this shortform content and move on to YouTube or some other platform. We creators need to be able to transcend our content.”
Follow Shamani on Instagram.