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 – referred to as Douyin in China, where its parent company is based – must also be understood as one of the most 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.
Beneath the hood, TikTok is really a fundamentally different app than American users have used before. It might appear and feel like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you could follow and become followed; obviously you will find hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated by the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and do 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 least a future. And contains some messages for us.
Consider the trajectory of what we believe of since the major social apps.
Twitter became popular as being a tool for following people and being then other individuals and expanded from that point. 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 become a little more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds according to what it really thought they might want to see, or may have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached on the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation is currently an extremely noticeable portion of the experience, and also on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one across the platform in new and quite often … let’s say surprising ways. Quite a few users might feel affronted by these assertive new automatic features, which are clearly created to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry that the trend serves the cheapest demands of any brutal attention economy that is revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.
These changes have likewise tended to work, at least on those terms. We quite often do hang out with the apps as they’ve be a little more assertive, and less intimately human, even while 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 and an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The most apparent clue is there whenever you open the app: one thing the thing is isn’t a feed of your friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed according to videos you’ve interacted with, as well as just watched. It never finishes of material. It is far from, until you train that it is, packed with people you know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you would like to see. It’s full of things which you appear to have demonstrated you want to watch, no matter what you actually say you want to watch.
It is constantly learning by you and, as time passes, builds a presumably complex but opaque model of what you have a tendency to watch, and will show you much more of that, or things like that, or things related to that, or, honestly, who 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 alongside. 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 onto the side.
Imagine a version of Facebook that was able to fill your feed before you’d friended just one person. That’s TikTok.
Its mode of creation is unusual, too. You could make stuff to your friends, or perhaps in response 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 reach, and smaller ones are easy to find, even though you’re just messing around.
On many social networking sites the initial step to showing your content to numerous people is grinding to develop an audience, 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 jump from audience to audience, trend to trend, creating something like rqljhs temporary friend groups, who gather to accomplish friend-group things: to share an inside joke; to riff over a song; to dicuss idly and aimlessly about whatever is before you. Feedback is instant and frequently abundant; virality includes a stiff tailwind. Stimulation is constant. There is an unmistakable sense that you’re using something that’s expanding in every single direction. The pool of content is enormous. Most of it is actually meaningless. A few of it will become popular, and a few is wonderful, and some gets to be both. As The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz put it, “Watching a lot of consecutively can seem to be like you’re about to have a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”