TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a little such as a greatest hits compilation, featuring merely the most engaging elements and experiences of the 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 many 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 example, is banned in China.
Underneath the hood, TikTok is a fundamentally different app than American users used before. It might appear and feel like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you can follow and stay followed; obviously there are hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated by the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and do use it like any other social app. But 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 way, it’s from the future – or at best a potential. And contains some messages for us.
Consider the trajectory of the items we think of because the major social apps.
Twitter gained popularity as a tool for following people and being followed by other individuals and expanded from that point. 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 begin to be a little more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds based upon what it really thought they might want to see, or may have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached in the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation has become a very noticeable portion of the experience, and 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 designed to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry this trend serves the best demands of any brutal attention economy that is revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.
These changes have also tended to work, at least on those terms. We quite often do spend more time with the apps as they’ve become more assertive, and fewer intimately human, even as we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial as well as simple to overlook about TikTok is the way it has stepped on the midpoint in between the familiar self-directed feed as well as an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The obvious clue is right there when 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 finishes of material. It is not, until you train it to be, filled with people you know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you want to see. It’s packed with things that you appear to have demonstrated you need to watch, whatever you truly say you want to watch.
It really is constantly learning from you and, as time passes, builds a presumably complex but opaque type of whatever you tend to watch, and shows you much more of that, or things such as that, or things linked to that, or, honestly, that knows, nevertheless it 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 a Twitter built around, I assume, trending topics or viral tweets, with “following” bolted to the side.
Imagine a version of Facebook that managed 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 in reply to your mates, 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 simple to find, even if you’re just messing around.
Of all social networks the first step to showing your articles to many people is grinding to build viewers, or having plenty 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 jump from audience to audience, trend to trend, creating something like rqljhs temporary friend groups, who meet up to perform friend-group things: to discuss an inside joke; to riff on the song; to speak idly and aimlessly about whatever is before 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 every direction. The pool of content is enormous. Almost all of it is meaningless. A few of it might be popular, and some is great, and some grows to be both. Because The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz put it, “Watching way too many consecutively can feel like you’re about to have a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”