TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a little like a greatest hits compilation, featuring only 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 clients are based – also must be understood as one of the very well known of several short-video-sharing apps in that country. It is a landscape that evolved both alongside and at arm’s length from the American tech industry – Instagram, for instance, is banned in China.
Under the hood, TikTok is a fundamentally different app than American users have used before. It might look and feel like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you could follow and become followed; obviously you will find hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated through 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 much more machine than man. In this way, it’s from your future – or at best a future. And it has some messages for us.
Take into account the trajectory of what we think of as the major social apps.
Twitter become popular being a tool for following people and being followed by other individuals and expanded from there. 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 commence to be a little more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds based upon exactly what it thought they may want to see, or might have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached around the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation has become an extremely noticeable part of the experience, and also on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one round the platform in new and often … 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 best demands of the brutal attention economy that is revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.
These changes have likewise tended to function, at the very least on those terms. We frequently do hang out with the apps as they’ve become more assertive, and fewer intimately human, even as we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial and easy to miss about TikTok is just how it provides stepped on the midpoint involving the familiar self-directed feed plus an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The obvious clue is there whenever 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 on videos you’ve interacted with, or perhaps just watched. It never expires of material. It is far from, except if you train it to be, packed with people you understand, or things you’ve explicitly told it you need to see. It’s full of things that you appear to have demonstrated you need to watch, no matter what you actually say you need to watch.
It is actually constantly learning by you and, over time, builds a presumably complex but opaque model of what you tend to watch, and will show you much more of that, or such things as that, or things associated with that, or, honestly, who knows, however it seems to work. TikTok starts making assumptions the next 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 guess, trending topics or viral tweets, with “following” bolted to the side.
Imagine a version of Facebook that was able to fill your feed before you’d friended a single person. That’s TikTok.
Its mode of creation is unusual, too. You could make stuff for your friends, or even in reaction to your friends, sure. But users looking for something to share 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 if you’re just messing around.
Of all social media sites the initial step to showing your content to a lot of people is grinding to develop an audience, 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 jump from audience to audience, trend to trend, creating something like rqljhs temporary friend groups, who get together to accomplish friend-group things: to discuss an inside joke; to riff over a song; to speak idly and aimlessly about whatever is in front of you. Feedback is instant and frequently abundant; virality has a stiff tailwind. Stimulation is constant. There is an unmistakable sense that you’re using something that’s expanding in each and every direction. The pool of content is enormous. Almost all of it really is meaningless. Some of it becomes popular, plus some is great, and some reaches be both. Because The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz put it, “Watching way too many in a row can seem to be like you’re about to get a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”