2019 was a banner year for TikTok. Easy to predict that 2020 will be more so.
In an age of machine learning, TikTok combines all the right features of AI, automation, big data, and conspiracy to win, and potentially win large.
What strikes me as particularly significant with TikTok is how responsive the algorithm is. I’ve been an active social media user and researcher since the start of the genre. My primary interest has always been understanding how the algorithms and platforms operate.
Lately I’ve found the TikTok algorithm’s signal to noise ratio to be incredible. After only a month or two training it, I find that it is recommending content to me that is right on the mark. The first three recommended videos for example generally result in very positive emotional responses.
That’s part of the meaning of this issue’s title. TikTok can be hypnotizing, and before you know it a great deal of time has passed while using the app.
Contrast this with the rest of social media. Whether Instagram, FB, Twitter, YouTube, Snap, you name it, they offer me a lot of noise, and I’m collectively using them less and less. And yet they’ve got years of my data, years of my interests, and I’m actively trying to train those algorithms to minimal effect.
If substack allowed TikTok embeds this newsletter would regularly feature content from that network, which may or may not be a good thing.
This is our second issue about TikTok, with the first looking at the growing interest the US Government has in TikTok as a threat to national security. In this issue let’s dig a bit deeper into the algorithm, and anticipate how that will position the platform for the year ahead.
When you start using the app, this content may come across as juvenile, or superficial, because that’s a lot of the default popular stuff. Yet part of what makes the app remarkable is just how quickly that default content is replaced by content that adapts to your usage.
Where other platforms focus on and prioritize engagement, TikTok rewards attention:
Once you figure out how this algorithm works, it’s not hard to train it appropriately and ensure it delivers the content you want.
My TikTok feed is currently dominated by farmers, heavy equipment operators, ATV mechanics, dogs, and francophone comedians. These are my current interests. Or at least I think they are?
Writing a newsletter that includes topics like social media manipulation does inspire a general suspicion and paranoia that in TikTok’s case raises alarm bells. To what extent is the company embracing and mobilizing the most manipulative aspects of social media:
It is quite significant that politics, or at least certain kinds of politics are relatively absent on TikTok. It’s there if you look, but it contrasts with Twitter and YouTube where political content is highly visible. Not so much in the TikTok universe.
Other platforms might blame this sort of thing on algorithms behaving badly or making mistakes. TikTok can’t make that excuse. They’ve embraced human agency and responsibility.
Christian Mutter @christianmutter@PeterRNeumann "It's important to clarify that nothing in our Community Guidelines precludes content such as this video, and it should not have been removed": https://t.co/EwhrZcFGDo
I’m now seeing a lot of users claim that their video was taken down and now it’s back. Though that may be one of many ploys for more attention that are habitually used by creators on the platform.
It does however reflect a growing awareness that TikTok tips the scales and impacts how the algorithms sort and rank content. While I do believe these kinds of hybrid systems are the way to go, they can be fraught with peril if the humans make stupid or bad choices with the power the platform gives them.
This will not be the last instance in which TikTok has to explain and apologize for one of their humans making a bad decision, even if it was with the best intentions. What about the worst intentions?
There’s quite a number of conspiracy theories circulating with regard to TikTok. A lot of it has to do with their Chinese ownership:
Although the conspiracy that social media apps use your microphone to eavesdrop and target you is not new. Though in TikTok’s case it is being revived.
It also doesn't help that adjacent apps like ToTok are actually spyware:
I suspect we’ve all experienced the serendipity where we talk about something and then see what we just discussed on social media. In TikTok’s case it happens quite a bit, but I still think it’s correlation, not causation. I see my dog yelling at squirrels. I open up TikTok and see a dog yelling at squirrels. Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?
With any conspiracy, the truth matters less than the ability of the conspiracy to draw us in. With TikTok the conspiracy is effective because more of us are being drawn in.
That’s the second meaning of today’s issue title. Time is running out to understand the impact of TikTok before that impact is permanent. Time is running out for regulators to limit TikTok’s power, abilities, and competitive edge. Time is running out for you to be TikTok famous! Actually, maybe not. Maybe there’s still time for that.
TikTok is definitely fueling the narcissistic desire to be famous. In part because TikTok seems to be the sole social media platform where fame is kinda accessible. And it’s not just kids. Just about every profession out there has someone using TikTok to promote their work (and encourage others like them to do the same as this Doctor does):
Perhaps that’s why TikTok is poised to win in 2020.
Where other social media platforms hesitate to exploit their power, TikTok does not. They use their data, their algorithms, and their platform to harness the desire for fame among MDs, teens, and anyone else who gets intoxicated by attention (which last I checked was most of us).
TikTok is easy to use. Makes creating compelling content relatively easy. And it is incredibly easy to spend a unforseen amount of time using the app.
This kind of growing power and fame makes me uncomfortable and suspicious. Where will the TikTok conspiracy go in 2020? Stay tuned to find out. #metaviews
Meanwhile check out the top 100 list TikTok just released for 2019.
Are you a TikTok user? What about your kids? Family members? What do you think of the platform? The content? The conspiracy?