TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a little like a greatest hits compilation, featuring merely the most engaging elements and experiences of its predecessors. This is true, to a point. But TikTok – known as Douyin in China, where its parent company is based – must also be understood as one of the most popular of many short-video-sharing apps in that country. This is a landscape that evolved both alongside and at arm’s length from the American tech industry – Instagram, for example, is banned in China.
Beneath the hood, TikTok is a fundamentally different app than American users have tried before. It might look and feel like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you can follow and stay followed; needless to say there are hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated from the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and do use it like every other social app. However the various aesthetic and functional similarities to Vine or Snapchat or Instagram belie a core difference: TikTok is a lot more machine than man. In this manner, it’s from the future – or at best a future. And contains some messages for us.
Think about the trajectory of the items we believe of since the major social apps.
Twitter become popular as being a tool for following people and being followed by other individuals and expanded after that. 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, made it happen commence to become more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds based on what it really 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 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. Quite a few users might feel affronted by these assertive new automatic features, that are clearly created to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry that the trend serves the best demands of a brutal attention economy that is revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.
These changes also have tended to operate, at least on those terms. We often do spend more time with the apps as they’ve be a little more assertive, and less intimately human, even as we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial as well as simple to miss about TikTok is how it offers stepped over the midpoint between the familiar self-directed feed and an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The most obvious clue is there once you open the app: the very first thing the thing is isn’t a feed of your own friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed based upon videos you’ve interacted with, or even just watched. It never runs out of material. It is really not, until you train so that it is, full of people you know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you want to see. It’s filled with stuff that you appear to have demonstrated you would like to watch, regardless of what you truly say you want to watch.
It is actually constantly learning from you and, as time passes, builds a presumably complex but opaque style of what you often watch, and shows you much more of that, or such things as that, or things related to that, or, honestly, that knows, however it generally seems to work. TikTok starts making assumptions the next 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 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 may make stuff to your friends, or even in reaction to your pals, sure. But users searching for something to post 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 easy to find, even though you’re just messing around.
On most social media sites the first step to showing your content to numerous people is grinding to build viewers, or having lots of friends, or being incredibly beautiful or wealthy or idle and ready 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 similar to rqljhs temporary friend groups, who gather to do 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 is enormous. Most of it really is meaningless. Some of it might be popular, and some is wonderful, and a few grows to be both. Since The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz use it, “Watching too many consecutively can seem to be like you’re about to have a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”