The Mahtos — the ones that crossed over

Many small town creators like the Mahtos have moved to Reels but are unable to find similar growth or reach. Instagram, however, says things are improving

Updated - May 14, 2022 10:46 am IST

Published - May 07, 2022 12:05 pm IST

Sanatan Mahto and Savitri built up a following of 2.7 million on TikTok dancing in front of their mud house

Sanatan Mahto and Savitri built up a following of 2.7 million on TikTok dancing in front of their mud house | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

When TikTok was banned, Sanatan Mahto and his sister Savitri had built up a following of 2.7 million — with just dance videos. Set to Bollywood and regional songs, they showcased their village life in Nipania, Jharkhand, with large smiles, fluid movements, and a backdrop of mud houses and farmlands.

The same, however, has got Sanatan just 724k followers on Instagram (and Savitri 150k). “I am doing similar content, but I’m not getting the same response,” says Sanatan, 26, over the phone. “I also don’t feel like investing so much hard work into creating content because you never know what will happen. We had 2.7 million followers on TikTok and, overnight, we lost them all.”

One of the Mahtos’ videos that went viral on Instagram Reels

One of the Mahtos’ videos that went viral on Instagram Reels | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

For Sanatan, TikTok was easy. He played around with the intuitive interface and taught himself how to make and edit videos. “It was easy to make them, to find good songs. But on Instagram, we don’t get the same video quality or the engagement.”

Also read:Why ‘15 Seconds: A Lifetime’, a documentary on an Indian TikToker is relevant today | ‘I don’t think any of the video apps in India are making money’: Vivan Sharan

The biggest problem, he feels, is the lack of awareness. “Our audiences are mostly from the villages, and I’ve found that they haven’t been able to connect with Instagram. Many don’t know about it, or they don’t find the content they enjoy on it. So, many of the people who used to follow me on TikTok don’t know where we are making content now.”

Sanatan’s handle hasn’t been verified by the platform yet, and that is impacting any kind of monetisation ventures. Earlier, through brand partnerships, the siblings used to make around ₹1.5 lakh a month. Now, they rarely get requests.

Changing requirements and algorithm constraints also leave them confused. “A few days ago, Instagram disabled my account for no reason. They said I had posted videos that went against their community guidelines. But I don’t know what they mean,” he says, adding, “I’ve heard this happening with many other people I know, too.”

Where does Instagram stand?

Paras Sharma, Director of Media Partnerships, Facebook India (Meta), reacts to perceptions of elitism and small-town exclusion:

Plans for the small-town creator: Reels [introduced in July 2020, just weeks after TikTok was banned] has transformed the way content is created and consumed on Instagram, and it has given rise to a whole new wave of young creators. We’ve seen numerous examples of people growing by over 100% to a 1,000%. @superstar_dewasi99 [Rupa Ram] from Pali in Rajasthan, for instance, has grown by over 2,500% since the launch of Reels. Last December, we launched the ‘25 Under 25 Instagrammers of India’ list to include creators like them.

L to R: Vaishnavi Nalbalwar, Rupa Ram, and Sarabjit Sarkar

L to R: Vaishnavi Nalbalwar, Rupa Ram, and Sarabjit Sarkar | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Our ‘Born on Instagram’ creator enablement programme has also had a big role to play in democratising learning for creators from small cities. Available in English, Hindi and Tamil, it contains modules that educate creators about the best way to manage their presence, create, grow and earn through branded content. Most of the registrations for ‘Born on Instagram’ are from tier 2 & 3 cities. The programme also offers opportunities for creators to engage with brands and unlock monetary rewards.

Tackling the ‘elitist’ tag: It is a myth that Instagram is only used by people in the big cities. We’re seeing young people from small cities emerge as creators with a national following, by starting trends that have gone mainstream. Sarabjit Sarkar aka @ranautneel from Teliamura district, Tripura, is known as the ‘village fashion influencer’ because of his creativity. He’s received acclaim from some of the leading Indian fashion designers. Vaishnavi Nalbalwar aka @journey_towards_fashion from Raigad is another relevant example. Her passion for fashion, that’s clearly visible on her Reels, led her to move to Pune and has helped her attain a community of passionate people who like her content and want to buy from her too. This led Vaishnavi to start her own fashion label, all on Instagram.

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