TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a bit such as a greatest hits compilation, featuring only the most engaging elements and experiences of its predecessors. This is true, to a point. But TikTok – called Douyin in China, where its parent company is based – also must be understood as one of the very well-known of numerous 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 instance, is banned in China.
Under the hood, TikTok is really a fundamentally different app than American users used before. It may look and feel like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you may follow and become followed; obviously you can find hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated through the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and do use it as with any other social app. But the various aesthetic and functional similarities to Vine or Snapchat or Instagram belie a core difference: TikTok is more machine than man. In this way, it’s through the future – or at best a potential. And it has some messages for us.
Think about the trajectory of the things we think of as the major social apps.
Twitter become popular as a tool for following people and being followed by others and expanded after that. Twitter watched what its users did using 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 thought they might choose to see, or might have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached in the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation is currently a really noticeable area of the experience, and on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one across the platform in new and frequently … let’s say surprising ways. Quite a few users might feel affronted by these assertive new automatic features, which are clearly made to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry that this trend serves the cheapest demands of a brutal attention economy which is revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.
These changes have also tended to function, at the very least on those terms. We often do hang out with the apps as they’ve be a little more assertive, and less intimately human, even as we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial and simple to overlook about TikTok is just how it provides stepped on the midpoint between the familiar self-directed feed plus an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The most apparent clue is right there once you open the app: one thing the truth is isn’t a feed of your friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed based on videos you’ve interacted with, as well as just watched. It never finishes of material. It is really not, except if you train that it is, packed with people you understand, or things you’ve explicitly told it you would like to see. It’s full of stuff that you appear to have demonstrated you need to watch, regardless of what you actually say you need to watch.
It is actually constantly learning by you and, with time, builds a presumably complex but opaque type of whatever you tend to watch, and shows you even more of that, or things like that, or things associated with that, or, honestly, who knows, nevertheless it seems to work. TikTok starts making assumptions the second 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 suppose, trending topics or viral tweets, with “following” bolted onto the side.
Imagine a version of Facebook that could fill your feed before you’d friended just one person. That’s TikTok.
Its mode of creation is unusual, too. You may make stuff for the friends, or even in response to your pals, sure. But users looking 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 easy reach, and smaller ones are really easy to find, even though you’re just messing around.
On most social networking sites the first step to showing your articles to a lot of people is grinding to build an audience, or having lots 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 jump from audience to audience, trend to trend, creating something similar to rqljhs temporary friend groups, who get together to do friend-group things: to talk about an inside joke; to riff on a song; to speak idly and aimlessly about whatever is in front of you. Feedback is instant and frequently abundant; virality includes 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. Most of it really is meaningless. Some of it becomes popular, and some is excellent, and a few grows to be both. As The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz use it, “Watching too many consecutively can feel like you’re about to possess a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”