TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a bit like a greatest hits compilation, featuring just the most engaging elements and experiences of its predecessors. This is true, to a point. But TikTok – known as Douyin in China, where its parent clients are based – should also be understood as one of the very most 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, as an example, is banned in China.
Beneath the hood, TikTok is really a fundamentally different app than American users used before. It may look and feel like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you can follow and be followed; needless to say there are hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated from the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and do 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 much more machine than man. In this way, it’s through the future – or at best a potential. And it has some messages for us.
Think about the trajectory of what we believe of because the major social apps.
Twitter become popular as being a tool for following people and being followed by others and expanded from that point. 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 begin to become a little more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds according to 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 portion of the experience, and on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one across the platform in new and often … let’s say surprising ways. Some users might feel affronted by these assertive new automatic features, which are clearly made to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry that this trend serves the best demands of a brutal attention economy that is 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 often do spend more time with the apps as they’ve be a little more assertive, and less intimately human, even while we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial and simple to overlook about TikTok is the way it provides stepped over the midpoint involving the familiar self-directed feed as well as an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The obvious clue is right there when you open the app: the very first thing the truth is isn’t a feed of your friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed based upon videos you’ve interacted with, as well as just watched. It never runs out of material. It is far from, except if you train that it is, full of people you understand, or things you’ve explicitly told it you need to see. It’s filled with things which you seem to have demonstrated you would like to watch, whatever you really say you would like to watch.
It is actually constantly learning by you and, as time passes, builds a presumably complex but opaque style of what you have a tendency to watch, and shows you much more of that, or things like that, or things linked to that, or, honestly, that knows, however 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 a Twitter built around, I guess, trending topics or viral tweets, with “following” bolted on 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 can make stuff for your friends, or in response to your pals, sure. But users looking for something to post 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 networks the first step to showing your content to numerous people is grinding to construct viewers, 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 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 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 direction. The pool of content is enormous. Most of it is meaningless. A few of it becomes popular, plus some is excellent, plus some gets to be both. Because The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz put it, “Watching way too many consecutively can seem to be like you’re about to get a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”