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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
Before amassing almost 700,000 followers and over 20 million likes on Tik Tok, Vignesh Swaminathan avoided social media.
What started as a way for him to post dance videos for fun in between Zoom calls has evolved into internet stardom, but the 30-year-old Tik Toker, civil engineer, and the City of Cupertino sustainability commission chair said his recent ascent into fame has been far from perfect. Swaminathan – known to his Tik Tok audience as “Mr. Barricade” – posts a combination of videos explaining bike lanes he has designed in cities around the Bay Area alongside dance videos that are typical of the platform, drawing in a diverse audience of average Tik Tok users and urban planning fanatics.
Swaminathan is the CEO and president of Crossroad Lab, a transportation firm that develops infrastructure and does urban planning work around the Bay Area. He also holds multiple political roles as a Citizen Advisory Committee Member and Citizen Watchdog Committee Chair for the Valley Transit Authority, but still finds time to interact with his Tik Tok audience and educate them about the urban planning work he does.
“I jumped onto Tik Tok as a way for me to just understand the app a little bit and have a place for me to be myself and not really think about work,” he said.
Swaminathan said during his time on the platform he has also had to deal with racist internet trolls and repeated suspensions due to Tik Tok’s community guidelines. But he said it won’t stop him from using his platform to educate his audience on urban planning, sustainability, and anti-racism.
Swaminathan said due to mass reporting from internet trolls, Tik Tok’s automatic banning banned and reinstated his account on multiple occasions throughout the summer. He said he used a Tik Tok audio that happened to also be popular among users who didn’t like his content which led to his struggles with the platform’s automatic banning system. Swaminathan said the system also disproportionately polices minority creators.
“It’s known that minority creators get more reports than other folks, and Tik Tok made a statement saying that they’re trying to work on the fact that there are a disproportionate amount of accounts by minority groups being banned,” he said.
Swaminathan said he has consistently dealt with a great deal of racism in the comment sections on his videos, and said he has always had commenters responding to his content with racist jokes and stereotypes.
“For me what was frustrating about it is that they were using my face to teach other people how to be racist to people that look like me,” he said.
But Swaminathan said the platform has its many upsides, chief among them that he has developed a following of people who are all passionate about his work. His comment sections are also often filled with high school and college students expressing that his videos inspired them to pursue a career in a similar industry.
“I feel very blessed and motivated by all the comments that I see,” he said. “It took me a while to kind of learn mentally to learn to filter through all the hate comments and focus on the positive.”
Swaminathan said he even gets recognized by fans of his Tik Tok when he’s out in public and said many of his fans tell him that he has helped them develop their career aspirations in urban planning or civil engineering.
🚸We designed this #quickbuild #curbextension installation in #gilroy #underconstruction #civilengineering #cattracking #urbandesign #crosswalk #peds
Looking ahead, Swaminathan said he plans to stick around on the app – despite his recent suspensions from the platform – and continue using it to educate his viewers.
“I feel like I understand the culture of Tik Tok quite well. I say that as a 30-year-old man, but I feel like I understand it quite well where it’s kind of a place for me to just be me,” he said.
He also said he’s interested in working on issues of urban planning from a higher level within the government after he was asked by certain political groups to run for mayor of Cupertino during the previous election cycle. Though he declined the offer then, Swaminathan said he is interested in continuing his work in government while still developing his social media career in the meantime.
“There are a lot of aspects to city government and I’ve chosen a career path that allows me to just keep learning and never going to stop learning,” he said.
Isha Trivedi is a journalism student at George Washington University. She enjoys reading and listening to podcasts in her (limited) spare time.