TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a little just like a greatest hits compilation, featuring just the most engaging elements and experiences of its predecessors. This is true, to a point. But TikTok – called Douyin in China, where its parent clients are based – must also be understood as one of the very most well known 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, for example, is banned in China.
Under the hood, TikTok is a fundamentally different app than American users have used before. It could feel and look like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you can follow and be followed; of course there are hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated through the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and use it as with any 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. This way, it’s from your future – or at best a future. And features some messages for us.
Consider the trajectory of what we think of since the major social apps.
Twitter become popular as a tool for following people and being followed by other individuals and expanded from there. 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 more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds according to exactly what it thought they might choose to see, or could have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached on the original system.
Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation is now a very noticeable part of the experience, and 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 designed to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry that the trend serves the best 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, at the very least on those terms. We frequently do hang out with the apps as they’ve be a little more assertive, and less intimately human, even as we’ve complained.
What’s both crucial and easy to miss about TikTok is the way it offers stepped on the midpoint involving the familiar self-directed feed and 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 the friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed according to videos you’ve interacted with, as well as just watched. It never finishes of material. It is not, except if you train so that it is, packed with people you already know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you would like to see. It’s filled with things which you have demonstrated you want to watch, regardless of what you really say you need to watch.
It really is constantly learning on your part and, over time, builds a presumably complex but opaque style of everything you often watch, and shows you even more of that, or such things as that, or things associated with that, or, honestly, who knows, but it generally seems to work. TikTok starts making assumptions the next 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 perhaps a Twitter built around, I guess, 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 a single person. That’s TikTok.
Its mode of creation is unusual, too. You may 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 easy to find, even if you’re just messing around.
Of all social networking sites the first step to showing your articles to many people is grinding to construct a crowd, or having plenty 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 gather to perform friend-group things: to talk about an inside joke; to riff on a song; to dicuss idly and aimlessly about whatever is in front of you. Feedback is instant and frequently abundant; virality features a stiff tailwind. Stimulation is constant. There is an unmistakable sense that you’re using something that’s expanding in every direction. The pool of content is enormous. Almost all of it really is meaningless. Some of it will become popular, and some is wonderful, plus some gets to be both. Since The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz use 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.”