TikTok is one of the world̵
A brief summary of TikTok
TikTok has more than a billion active users around the world, and that number continues to grow. If you’re not currently aware of this, this amount of usage seems astonishing, but there are very good reasons why so many teens are still addicted to the app.
In early 2020, we investigated why TikTok had so many dedicated users. However, in the face of rapid and continued growth, we wanted to investigate what the app does that causes users to scroll through the TikTok feed for hours or even days.
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The “For You” page and the algorithm
The biggest reason so many teens, and people of all ages, are still addicted to TikTok is the app’s content discovery feed, known as the “For You” page or FYP. This page acts as the app’s primary timeline and is how people find new content. TikTok is powered by a unique algorithm that uses AI and machine learning to fill the FYP with the most optimal content to showcase a particular user.
To determine your interests, the app accurately tracks which types of videos you primarily interact with. For example, if you like, comment on, or share clips that focus on the outside world, you’ll see more outdoor videos on your feed. The algorithm also records relationships based on different videos that the same users interact with. This is similar to Amazon’s ‘often bought together’ section that offers suggestions based on products purchased.
Unlike other social networks that are mainly built on connections between people who know each other in real life, TikTok focuses on optimizing the content you see. It’s entirely possible to spend hours on TikTok without seeing someone you know or follow because the platform is so powered by algorithmic discovery.
Due to the nature of the FYP, the app gets better at understanding what kind of content you like if you keep using it. This is why people can have vastly different experiences with the app. While many find their FYP populated primarily with dance videos and singing performances, others only see videos about cooking, home repair and digital painting.
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Another major reason TikTok is so dominant is because of the prevalence of trends, such as dance challenges for popular songs or videos tuned to popular in-app filters. The algorithm prioritizes content that fits certain online trends that are popular at the moment. As popular trends tend to get more engagement, other users will often join in and create content that aligns with those trends.
A major reason why trends show up on TikTok is the audio system. When users upload a video, the audio from that particular video can be synced or used by other users. For example, if someone remixes a popular song, that particular audio clip could end up being used in thousands of other videos.
This is also a big reason why TikTok has become the dominant way songs collect streams and grow on charts such as Billboard and Rolling Stone. Many of the biggest and most dominant hits of the past two years have come from TikTok trends. Sometimes obscure or old songs can also get an unexpected boost. For example Fleetwood Mac’s To dream, released in 1977, recently became a trend on TikTok and returned to the charts within the same week.
Communities on TikTok
Finally, TikTok offers a wide variety of content. Groups of clips and content creators are normally referred to as “TikTok Communities” and are characterized by similar videos, audios and common hashtags. For any niche topic, there are likely thousands of users creating videos on that particular topic.
For example, there’s an entire TikTok subculture called ‘cottage-core’, which focuses on fantasy aesthetics and videos of forest homes. There are entire TikTok communities with millions of views focused on rock laying, ice scooping, mixing paint colors, and animating corporate logos.
The diversity of topics contributes to the size of the user base, both in terms of viewers and content creators. It also motivates many different types of businesses to join the app and create content to promote their products.
The future of social media
TikTok is a great example of the role of machine learning and AI in shaping our consumption habits. Just as ecommerce sites use user-driven algorithms to recommend what to buy, TikTok’s platform relies on its users to drive the growth of certain types of content.
TikTok has a plethora of privacy concerns that have raised many eyebrows both in the tech privacy space and in the larger political discourse. Because the app relies on using user information to enable discovery, many questions are raised about how much data the app really collects about its users and who can access that data. We covered many of these privacy concerns in our previous piece on TikTok. As with any other app you install on your phone, be careful when sharing confidential, identifiable information.