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 – called Douyin in China, where its parent company is based – also must be understood as one of the very most well-known 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, as an example, is banned in China.
Under the hood, TikTok is a fundamentally different app than American users used before. It could appear and feel like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you can follow and become followed; needless to say you will find hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated by the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and do use it like every other social app. But the various aesthetic and functional similarities to Vine or Snapchat or Instagram belie a core difference: TikTok is much more machine than man. This way, it’s through the future – or at best a future. And contains some messages for us.
Take into account the trajectory of what we believe of because the major social apps.
Twitter gained popularity 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, did it begin to become a little more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds based on what it really thought they may want to see, or could have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached in the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation has become a really noticeable part of the experience, and on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one across 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 made to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry that this trend serves the lowest demands of the brutal attention economy which is revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.
These changes have likewise tended to operate, a minimum of on those terms. We often do hang out with the apps as they’ve become more assertive, and less intimately human, even while we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial and easy to overlook about TikTok is just how it provides stepped over the midpoint in between the familiar self-directed feed as well as an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The most apparent clue is straight away when you open the app: the very first 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, or even just watched. It never expires of material. It is far from, except if you train so that it is, full of people you already know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you want to see. It’s filled with stuff that you have demonstrated you want to watch, whatever you really say you would like to watch.
It is constantly learning from you and, with time, builds a presumably complex but opaque type of whatever you often watch, and will show you much more of that, or such things as that, or things linked to that, or, honestly, who knows, nevertheless it seems 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 guess, 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 looking for 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 really easy to find, even though you’re just messing around.
Of all social media sites the first step to showing your site content to many people is grinding to develop an audience, or having lots 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 leap from audience to audience, trend to trend, creating something such as rqljhs temporary friend groups, who gather to accomplish friend-group things: to share an inside joke; to riff on a song; to speak idly and aimlessly about whatever is in front of 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 every single direction. The pool of content is enormous. Most of it really is meaningless. A number of it might be popular, and some is great, plus some grows 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.”