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 – referred to as Douyin in China, where its parent company is based – should also be understood as one of the most well known of numerous 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, for example, is banned in China.
Underneath the hood, TikTok is actually a fundamentally different app than American users have used before. It might look and feel like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you may follow and stay followed; needless to say you will find hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated from the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and 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 manner, it’s from your future – or at a minimum a potential. And contains some messages for us.
Consider the trajectory of the things we believe of because the major social apps.
Twitter become popular being a tool for following people and being accompanied 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, did it start to become more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds according to what it really thought they might choose to see, or may have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached in the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation is currently a really noticeable area of the experience, as well as on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one around the platform in new and frequently … let’s say surprising ways. Some users might feel affronted by these assertive new automatic features, which are clearly designed to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry that the 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 likewise tended to operate, at least on those terms. We quite often do spend more time with the apps as they’ve be a little more assertive, and fewer intimately human, even as we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial and easy to overlook about TikTok is just how it offers stepped over the midpoint between 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: the very first thing the truth is isn’t a feed of your own friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed according to videos you’ve interacted with, or even just watched. It never expires of material. It is really not, unless you train so that it is, full of people you know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you would like to see. It’s filled with things which you have demonstrated you need to watch, regardless of what you actually say you would like to watch.
It really is constantly learning by you and, with time, builds a presumably complex but opaque model of what you have a tendency to watch, and shows you more of that, or things such as that, or things related to that, or, honestly, that knows, but it appears 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 even 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 one particular person. That’s TikTok.
Its mode of creation is unusual, too. You can make stuff for the friends, or even in reply to your mates, sure. But users trying to find 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 easy to find, even though you’re just messing around.
On most social media sites the initial step to showing your articles to numerous people is grinding to construct 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 jump from audience to audience, trend to trend, creating something like rqljhs temporary friend groups, who gather to accomplish friend-group things: to talk about an inside joke; to riff on a 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 articles are enormous. Most of it really is meaningless. A number of it might be popular, plus some is wonderful, plus some gets to be both. As The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz place it, “Watching way too many consecutively can feel like you’re about to have a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”