TikTok is the fastest growing social network on the planet today. Owned by a China based technology company, Byte Dance, the social media platform was established in September 2016 and has since experienced a meteoric rise in users. The video app boasts of 1.39 billion users as of this writing, the majority of whom are aged 10 to 39. Its core users consist of the most lucrative segment of the advertising market. At a time when market leader, Facebook, is losing more than a million active users per month, TikTok adds about a million users per day. It was the most downloaded app in 2021 and is presently the 7th most popular social media platform.
The average TikTok user opens the app 19 times a day. Users spend an average of 75 minutes on the app, about 40% more time than they do on Instagram. Its success has caused its market value to leap by 50%, from $50 billion in 2020 to $75 billion in 2022.
What is the secret to TikTok’s success?
The simple answer is that it is addictive. TikTok uses a closely guarded algorithm that is able to detect its user’s interests, preferences, biases, and even his mood at the moment. So accurate is TikTok’s profiling system that they are able to form an accurate characterization their users on a subconscious level. It uses this information to feed videos that appeal to the user’s core interests and current state of mind. The idea is to have the user spend more time on the app.
To understand how the algorithm works, a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) investigative group opened 100 TikTok accounts and watched hundreds and thousands of videos. The analysis was led by Guillaume Chaslot, an algorithm expert who helped design YouTube’s algorithm. The experiment was done to determine how TikTok is able to profile its users with razor-sharp accuracy. What they discovered was both genius and sinister.
According to Chaslot, the TikTok algorithm is more powerful than those used by other social media platforms because it identifies the user’s vulnerabilities and exploits them.
How does it work?
TikTok starts the same way for all its users. It feeds them a random selection of highly popular videos, most of which are relevant to the user’s location. TikTok then determined which type of videos are watched most, which the user hesitates to watch, which are passed over, which are paused for a screenshot, which are repeated and which are search for and re-watched. It also takes into consideration which creators and hashtags are searched for and scrolled over. Even the audio tracks that appeal to the user are factored into the profile.
Within 45 minutes of usage, TikTok is able to determine the user’s age, gender, sexual orientation, hobbies, interest, and, yes, even their vulnerabilities.
With this, video feeds shift to more focused videos, many of which are of niche interest with fewer views. Let’s say the user watched several videos featuring cute pets. TikTok will then feed the user more pet videos but will occasionally break it by showing popular videos with related themes into the feed. It could be about cats, wildlife, conservation, etc. Depending on what is watched and how the user reacts to the videos, TikTok is able to sharpen their profile on the user.
If a user watches videos about dogs, TikTok will then feed the user more videos featuring various types of dog breeds. In due course, it will know if what appeals to the user is a Golden Retriever or a French Poodle.
If the user also watches videos about death, mourning, and moving on, TikTok’s algorithm will figure out that the user is mourning the death of a pet, perhaps his Golden Retriever. It then shifts its playlist for the user, feeding him videos about pet deaths, sadness, and coping. Ninety three percent of the feeds will follow this theme while 7% will be about random topics to see what other themes may appeal to the user. Ads begin to flow on the feed at this point.
TikTok leads its users down a rabbit hole based on the user’s interest and mood – and this is its secret sauce. While this rabbit hole can be entertaining, it could also lead users to dark places.
It is common for TikTok to lead those interested in politics to videos that promote conspiracy theories. Those interested in provocative videos are led to clips that feature dark sexual fetishes. Those interested in crime are led to videos that celebrate criminals and their gruesome acts. Those interested in depression and self-hate are lead to videos relating to suicide. The list goes on.
TikTok’s rabbit hole is a dangerous place to be, which is why experts like as Guillaume Chaslot are advocating algorithm transparency. Several countries have already banned TikTok for its negative effects. These includes China (its home base), India, Russia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, among others.
TikTok’s secret sauce is both mesmerizing and addictive. Users must be cognizant of the dark places it can lead them to. Self-restraint is our best defense.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist