TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a bit 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 company is based – should also be understood as one of the very well known of numerous 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 instance, is banned in China.
Under the hood, TikTok is actually a fundamentally different app than American users have tried before. It could look 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 from the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and use it as with any other social app. Nevertheless the various aesthetic and functional similarities to Vine or Snapchat or Instagram belie a core difference: TikTok is more machine than man. In this way, it’s through the future – or at a minimum a future. And it has some messages for us.
Think about the trajectory of what we believe of since the major social apps.
Twitter gained popularity being a tool for following people and being then other individuals and expanded after that. 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 begin to become a little more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds based on exactly what it thought they may 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 area of the experience, and on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one around the platform in new and often … let’s say surprising ways. Many folks 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 the brutal attention economy that is certainly revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.
These changes also have tended to operate, at the very least on those terms. We quite often do hang out with the apps as they’ve become more assertive, and less intimately human, even as we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial and easy to overlook about TikTok is the way it provides stepped over the midpoint between the familiar self-directed feed as well as an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The most apparent clue is there whenever 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 perhaps just watched. It never runs out of material. It is really not, unless you train that it is, full of people you know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you need to see. It’s full of stuff that you appear to have demonstrated you need to watch, whatever you actually say you want to watch.
It is constantly learning on your part and, over time, builds a presumably complex but opaque style of everything you tend to watch, and shows you much more of that, or things such as that, or things linked to that, or, honestly, who knows, but it seems to work. TikTok starts making assumptions the 2nd you’ve opened the app, before you’ve really given it anything to work with. Imagine an Instagram centered entirely around its “Explore” tab, or perhaps a Twitter built around, I suppose, 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 one particular person. That’s TikTok.
Its mode of creation is unusual, too. You could make stuff for the friends, or even in reply to your pals, sure. But users searching 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 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 articles to a lot of people is grinding to build viewers, 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 such as rqljhs temporary friend groups, who meet up to perform friend-group things: to share an inside joke; to riff on the song; to talk 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 articles are enormous. Most of it is meaningless. A few of it becomes popular, plus some is wonderful, plus some grows to be both. As The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz put it, “Watching way too many in a row can seem to be like you’re about to have a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”