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TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a bit such as a greatest hits compilation, featuring just the most engaging elements and experiences of its predecessors. This is true, to a point. But TikTok – referred to as Douyin in China, where its parent company is based – should also be understood as one of the very popular of many short-video-sharing apps in that country. It is a landscape that evolved both alongside and also at arm’s length from the American tech industry – Instagram, for example, is banned in China.
Underneath the hood, TikTok is really a fundamentally different app than American users have used before. It may look and feel like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you could follow and become followed; obviously there are hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated through the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and do use it as with any other social app. Nevertheless the various aesthetic and functional similarities to Vine or Snapchat or Instagram belie a core difference: TikTok is much more machine than man. In this way, it’s from your future – or at best a future. And contains some messages for us.
Consider the trajectory of the things we believe of because the major social apps.
Twitter gained popularity as being a tool for following people and being accompanied by other people and expanded from there. Twitter watched what its users did with its original concept and formalized the conversational behaviors they invented. (See: Retweets. See again: hashtags.) Only then, and after going public, did it start to be a little more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds based upon what it really thought they might choose to see, or could have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached around the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation is currently a very noticeable portion of the experience, and on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one round the platform in new and frequently … let’s say surprising ways. Some users might feel affronted by these assertive new automatic features, which are clearly created to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry this trend serves the cheapest demands of a brutal attention economy that is certainly revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.
These changes have likewise tended to work, a minimum of on those terms. We often do spend more time with the apps as they’ve become a little more assertive, and fewer intimately human, even as we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial as well as simple to miss about TikTok is just how it has stepped within the midpoint involving the familiar self-directed feed as well as an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The most apparent clue is right there when you open the app: the first thing you see isn’t a feed of your own friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed based on videos you’ve interacted with, or perhaps just watched. It never expires of material. It is not, unless you train that it is, packed with people you already know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you need to see. It’s filled with stuff that you have demonstrated you want to watch, whatever you truly say you would like to watch.
It is actually constantly learning by you and, with time, builds a presumably complex but opaque style of what you often watch, and teaches you much more of that, or such things as that, or things related to that, or, honestly, you never know, but it appears to work. TikTok starts making assumptions the 2nd you’ve opened the app, before you’ve really given it anything to work with. Imagine an Instagram centered entirely around its “Explore” tab, or perhaps a Twitter built around, I assume, trending topics or viral tweets, with “following” bolted to the side.
Imagine a version of Facebook that could fill your feed before you’d friended one particular person. That’s TikTok.
Its mode of creation is unusual, too. You can make stuff for the friends, or even in reply to your friends, sure. But users searching for something to publish about are immediately recruited into group challenges, or hashtags, or shown popular songs. The bar is low. The stakes are low. Large audiences feel within reach, and smaller ones are simple to find, even when you’re just messing around.
On most social networks step one to showing your site content to a lot of people is grinding to develop viewers, or having a lot of friends, or being incredibly beautiful or wealthy or idle and willing to display that, or getting lucky or striking viral gold. TikTok instead encourages users to leap from audience to audience, trend to trend, creating something like rqljhs temporary friend groups, who meet up to perform friend-group things: to discuss an inside joke; to riff on the song; to talk idly and aimlessly about whatever is in front of you. Feedback is instant and frequently abundant; virality has a stiff tailwind. Stimulation is constant. It comes with an unmistakable sense that you’re using something that’s expanding in every direction. The pool of content is enormous. Almost all of it is actually meaningless. A number of it will become popular, and some is excellent, and some reaches be both. Since The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz use it, “Watching way too many in a row can seem to be like you’re about to possess a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”