The facial expression that Argen Kerimov makes has turned him into TikTok royalty.
But Kerimov, who has since 2021 amassed more than 20 million followers, is only one of a countless crowd of people in Kyrgyzstan trying to make a name for themselves on the infectiously popular social media platform.
For some, the Chinese-owned micro-video site is just a bit of fun. Others aspire to be educational. The dream, though, is to become popular enough to make a living.
Kerimov, a 21-year-old from the town of Tokmok, about 1 ½ hours drive from the capital, Bishkek, is near-universally known as Sigma Face.
As with all memes, that will need some explaining.
The initial inspiration for the perplexed mien that name is associated with comes from the blackly comic thriller American Psycho, released in 2000 and starring Christian Bale. In one scene, Bale’s character, pulls an expression that the website Know Your Meme points out is also known as the “Ooh face.”
In Kerimov’s rendition, the expression is intended to convey detached, ironic approval of scenes playing out in clips posted by other TikTok users. Copycats quickly imitated the formula, turning Sigma Face into one of TikTok’s seemingly infinite pool of quasi-memes.
In an interview he gave last year, Kerimov said he got into TikTok after ditching his IT studies at college and struggling to set up a business.
“My mom used to tell me every day that I should give this up, because you can’t make money like this,” Kerimov said.
Kerimov, who goes by the handle @argenby, says he does not make money off TikTok itself, but that he has monetized his content on YouTube. As is commonplace, once the Sigma Face sensation took off, Kerimov did collabs with a few other prominent social media stars.
He attributes his success to persistence rather than inspiration.
“I don’t think it’s luck. You just need to try everything,” he said in last year’s interview. “I used to film three videos a day until Sigma happened. Now I am sticking with Sigma until the trend comes to end.”
Kerimov is far from the only Kyrgyz TikTok creator with more than 1 million followers. The more popular channels tend to be entertainment-focused.
One with six million subscribers is run by a dance group going by the name 4 Girls. The concept barely needs elaboration: it is four girls, and they dance to popular songs.
In some cases, TikTokers set up collectives known as “houses.” Again, perhaps painfully self-explanatorily, this means the creators live in the same apartment and work together on making content.
What seems to have been the first such outfit to come into being was Crush House, set up in 2020 by five well-established 20-something TikTokers. The team reached out to peers in Uzbekistan in an attempt to broaden their international appeal.
Crush House had amassed 3.8 million followers by the time it broke up in 2022, but its individual members continue to make videos. The usual TikTok fare: dances, challenges and lip-syncing.
Another of the so-called Kyrgyz TikTok millionaires, Eldar Tynaliyev, has set himself apart by building something a little more instructive. His videos are in the pop-science mold and often consist of myth-busting and experiments. Among his videos is one in which he tests the quality of milk brands found in Kyrgyz supermarkets. In others he talks about the smog that blights Bishkek and how the city is for wheelchair users.
At 83 years of age, Altynai Karasayeva may be the country’s most senior TikToker. Karasayeva, who has a scientific background, uses the platform to talk to her 600,000 subscribers about mental and physical wellbeing. Her thought in creating the account was that since barely anybody was reading her scholarly work, perhaps short and informative clips might get more attention.
“My grandson told me that you need to get the sense across in 30 seconds. I told him that it was hard to do that. He said: ‘Well just try. You’re a professor, aren’t you? You can do it,’” Karasayeva told a reporter last year.
Then there are some more niche accounts. Like the one named after President Sadyr Japarov. The animation-centric content there is satirical and informed by a vibe not wholly removed in tone from a humorous sub-genre known broadly as Weird Twitter.
Alina Ibrayeva, 21, set up her TikTok account in 2022 as a resource for spreading knowledge about sexual health. Her frank discussions around the pleasures of intimacy are designed to help people overcome their sense of embarrassment over an often-taboo topic.
Social media marketing specialist and TikToker Saule Mahamadzhan kyzy told Eurasianet that she sees the appeal of the format in its visual simplicity.
“For example, 4 Girls film dances. Everyone sees the dances and understands. Their videos can get 10 million views. Argen has the same thing; you see and understand language of gestures. Their videos are short and sticky,” Mahamadzhan kyzy said.
Makhamatzhan kyzy’s own account is focused on lifestyle issues. Since she set it up in 2021, the account has accumulated 27,000 subscribers, mainly based in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
As in many other countries, including the United States, lawmakers are wondering aloud whether it has come time to ban TikTok. If U.S. officials attribute their banning proclivities to concerns over the possible acquisition of the personal data of U.S. citizens by Chinese government bodies, Kyrgyz deputies appear more worried about morality.
In February, Shailoobek Atazov, an MP, said TikTok was “corrupting the youth” and destroying the country’s values.
“They are showing bad things on TikTok that are sending the ideologies of maturing generations in the wrong direction,” he said.
It is unlikely even a fraction of the number of people that watch any of Kerimov’s videos heard this appeal.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.