TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a bit like a greatest hits compilation, featuring merely the most engaging elements and experiences of the predecessors. This is true, to a point. But TikTok – called Douyin in China, where its parent clients are based – also must be understood as one of the very most popular of many short-video-sharing apps in that country. This is a landscape that evolved both alongside and also at arm’s length from the American tech industry – Instagram, as an example, is banned in China.
Beneath the hood, TikTok is really a fundamentally different app than American users used before. It may feel and look like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you can follow and become followed; obviously you can find hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated by the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and use it like any other social app. Nevertheless 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 from the future – or at least a future. And it has some messages for us.
Consider the trajectory of the items we believe of as the major social apps.
Twitter gained popularity as being a tool for following people and being accompanied by other people and expanded after that. Twitter watched what its users did featuring its original concept and formalized the conversational behaviors they invented. (See: Retweets. See again: hashtags.) Only then, and after going public, made it happen begin to become a little more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds according to what it really thought they might choose to see, or might have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached around the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation is now a really noticeable area 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, that 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 likewise tended to operate, a minimum of on those terms. We frequently do spend more time with the apps as they’ve become more assertive, and much less intimately human, even while we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial as well as simple to miss about TikTok is just how it has stepped within the midpoint in between the familiar self-directed feed as well as an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The most apparent clue is straight away when you open the app: one thing the thing is isn’t a feed of the friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed based upon videos you’ve interacted with, or perhaps just watched. It never runs out of material. It is not, until you train so that it is, full of people you know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you need to see. It’s packed with things which you seem to have demonstrated you want to watch, whatever you really say you want to watch.
It really is constantly learning from you and, over time, builds a presumably complex but opaque type of everything you often watch, and will show you much more of that, or such things as that, or things linked to that, or, honestly, you never know, but it generally seems to work. TikTok starts making assumptions the 2nd you’ve opened the app, before you’ve really given it anything to do business 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 on the side.
Imagine a version of Facebook that could fill your feed before you’d friended a single person. That’s TikTok.
Its mode of creation is unusual, too. You could make stuff to your friends, or in reaction to your mates, 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 if you’re just messing around.
On most social networks the first step to showing your content to numerous people is grinding to develop viewers, or having lots of friends, or being incredibly beautiful or wealthy or idle and prepared 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 share an inside joke; to riff over a song; to speak idly and aimlessly about whatever is before you. Feedback is instant and frequently abundant; virality features a stiff tailwind. Stimulation is constant. It comes with an unmistakable sense that you’re using something that’s expanding in each and every direction. The pool of content articles are enormous. Most of it really is meaningless. A number of it will become popular, and some is great, and some grows to be both. As The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz put it, “Watching too many in a row can seem to be like you’re about to get a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”