TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a bit like a greatest hits compilation, featuring only the most engaging elements and experiences of the predecessors. This is true, to a point. But TikTok – called Douyin in China, where its parent clients are based – also must be understood as one of the most popular of several 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, as an example, is banned in China.
Under the hood, TikTok is really a fundamentally different app than American users have used before. It might feel and look like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you could follow and become followed; obviously you can find hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated through 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 more machine than man. In this manner, it’s from the future – or at a minimum a potential. And features some messages for us.
Consider the trajectory of what we think of as the major social apps.
Twitter become popular as a tool for following people and being followed by other people 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, made it happen commence to become more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds based on what it thought they might choose to see, or may have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached on the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation is currently a very noticeable portion of the experience, and also on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one around the platform in new and often … let’s say surprising ways. Quite a few users might feel affronted by these assertive new automatic features, that are clearly created to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry that the trend serves the cheapest demands of the brutal attention economy which is revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.
These changes also have tended to operate, at least on those terms. We quite often do spend more time with the apps as they’ve become a little more assertive, and fewer intimately human, even as we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial and easy to overlook about TikTok is how it has stepped over the midpoint involving the familiar self-directed feed as well as an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The most obvious clue is right there whenever you open the app: the very first thing you see isn’t a feed of your friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed based on videos you’ve interacted with, as well as just watched. It never expires of material. It is really not, unless you train it to be, filled with people you understand, or things you’ve explicitly told it you would like to see. It’s full of things that you seem to have demonstrated you want to watch, whatever you really say you would like to watch.
It really is constantly learning on your part and, as time passes, builds a presumably complex but opaque type of what you tend to watch, and teaches you much more of that, or such things as that, or things linked to that, or, honestly, you never know, but it appears to work. TikTok starts making assumptions the 2nd 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 suppose, trending topics or viral tweets, with “following” bolted on 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 in reaction 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 really easy to find, even when you’re just messing around.
On most social networking sites the first step to showing your content to numerous people is grinding to construct an audience, or having a lot 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 similar to rqljhs temporary friend groups, who meet up to do friend-group things: to share 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 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 might be popular, and a few is wonderful, plus some gets to be both. Since The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz use it, “Watching way too many in a row can feel like you’re about to get a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”