TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a little like a greatest hits compilation, featuring just 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 numerous short-video-sharing apps in that country. It is a landscape that evolved both alongside and at arm’s length from the American tech industry – Instagram, for example, is banned in China.
Beneath the hood, TikTok is a fundamentally different app than American users have used before. It may appear and feel like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you could follow and stay followed; of course there are hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated from the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and use it as with any other social app. However the various aesthetic and functional similarities to Vine or Snapchat or Instagram belie a core difference: TikTok is a lot more machine than man. This way, it’s through the future – or at best a potential. And it has some messages for us.
Take into account the trajectory of what we think of since the major social apps.
Twitter become popular as being a tool for following people and being then others and expanded from there. 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, made it happen start to become 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 around the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation is now an extremely noticeable portion of the experience, as well as on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one round the platform in new and frequently … 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 that this trend serves the best demands of any brutal attention economy which is revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.
These changes also have tended to function, a minimum of on those terms. We quite often do hang out with the apps as they’ve become a little more assertive, and less intimately human, even as we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial and simple 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 straight away once you open the app: one thing the truth is isn’t a feed of the 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 runs out of material. It is far from, unless you train it to be, full of people you know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you want to see. It’s filled with stuff that you seem to have demonstrated you need to watch, whatever you truly say you want to watch.
It is constantly learning on your part and, as time passes, builds a presumably complex but opaque style of whatever you often watch, and teaches you more of that, or things like that, or things related 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 perhaps a Twitter built around, I suppose, 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 could make stuff for the friends, or even in reply to your mates, sure. But users searching 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 easy reach, and smaller ones are simple to find, even though you’re just messing around.
On most social networking sites step one to showing your content to a lot of people is grinding to develop viewers, or having a lot 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 leap from audience to audience, trend to trend, creating something like rqljhs temporary friend groups, who gather to perform friend-group things: to share an inside joke; to riff on a 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. It comes with an unmistakable sense that you’re using something that’s expanding in every direction. The pool of content articles are enormous. The majority of it is actually meaningless. A few of it will become popular, and a few is great, plus some reaches be both. Because The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz put it, “Watching a lot of in a row can seem to be like you’re about to possess a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”