Why You Can’t Look Away From TikTok

Experts weigh in on the app’s killer algorithm and more

Claire Lee, a stay-at-home mom based outside Chicago, downloaded TikTok “out of boredom” a few weeks into the coronavirus lockdown. She loved it way more than she expected.

“Every time I open it I marvel at the sheer number of brilliant, creative people out there,” she says. “It‘s been a bright spot for me during such a dark time for all of us.”

By all accounts, the pandemic has sent TikTok’s growth into overdrive: Downloads in Apple’s App Store grew 154% from the same time last year. A recent survey found that kids in the U.S., U.K., and Spain use social apps, including YouTube, twice as much in 2020 as they did four years ago — a trend driven primarily by TikTok adoption. Children and teens now use TikTok almost as much as they watch YouTube.

What explains the appeal? Why is a social media app that doesn’t even really seem to feature much social networking suddenly so popular, especially among young people? I talked to over a dozen internet communication experts and TikTok fans, and though there was a wide variety of answers, the bulk of them comes down to one thing: TikTok understands its users better than any other major social network seems to. Instagram Reels, which launches August 5, may seem like an easy shoe-in to replace TikTok as it faces a potential American ban and/or Microsoft acquisition. But Facebook’s products historically lack what makes TikTok so unique: a fun, carefree environment where users feel free to let loose, whatever that means to them.

“TikTok’s ingredients are not new; rather, its recipe and timing are,” says Raian Ali, a professor of technology and behavior at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar. “You do not need to have friends on TikTok or commit to groups and reciprocate attention and social interaction to start seeing interesting and personalized content. I think it also came, coincidentally, at the right time where the Covid-19 lockdown in many countries led people who were not so interested in social media to try a tool that requires less social commitment and bonding.”

Emily deGrandpre, a creative strategist in Brooklyn, says she avoided downloading TikTok for months until she finally succumbed in May. But she quickly became an active user. “I have really enjoyed the likes of fashion TikTok, academia TikTok, silly dancing and grooving TikTok, cooking pages, home improvement, and social experiments, always to catchy sounds and bytes.”

“It’s the perfect app. The algorithm is so evil and knows me so well,” says Ej Dickson, a culture writer at Rolling Stone whose work has also appeared in OneZero. It “knows exactly what I want. Which is gay and lesbian NYC theater kid content.”

Many of the TikTok fans I spoke with say they started using the app during the pandemic. Milovan Savic, a researcher at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne whose work focuses on digital cultures, youth, and short-video apps, says the lockdown — and the mass boredom it spawned — may have been key to TikTok’s recent surge of success. While the pandemic compelled people to spend more time on social media and watch Netflix — after all, what else is there to do? — Savic notes that there’s something to TikTok that makes it more enticing to users right now than other forms of social media. “TikTok is often seen as a goofy app combining creative expression, humor, and entertainment,” he says. “While we were flooded with news of death tolls, it seemed that TikTok tapped into users’ coping mechanisms by pointing to the importance of creativity, artistic expression, and laughter in times of crisis.” Not all TikTok content is silly, as Wired made clear in its feature about TikTokkers based in prison. There’s a degree of honesty and clarity among TikTok users that gets overshadowed by polished, glossier content on Instagram, or the clamorous posturing on Twitter.

As someone who spends a lot of time on Twitter, watching headlines worsen by the day, I absolutely understand the appeal of an app that actually allows for a little mental escape. Though research on TikTok is very limited (the app is relatively new, after all), one 2020 working paper found that it has much less of an impact on users’ well-being than other social media apps. Instagram and Facebook, according to the study, negatively impact well-being, especially for those actively using it during the pandemic. Twitter increases peoples’ feelings of dissatisfaction in their lives, perhaps, the study authors note, because of that relentless stream of horrific news. TikTok, meanwhile, appeared relatively neutral. It simply didn’t have an effect one way or another.

“It’s the perfect app. The algorithm is so evil and knows me so well.”

Maybe it’s not making people feel drastically worse or acting as an alternative for therapy, but it’s certainly keeping people engaged — for hours. My husband frequently turns to TikTok during work breaks or before bed, the spiky, tinny noise of a pop song ricocheting around our small bedroom for 10 seconds before transitioning to another. And another. And another. TikTok is easy and appealing, according to Ioana Literat, an assistant professor of communication at the Teachers College at Columbia University, because of the rapid-fire movement of TikTok posts. “It’s short-form video content that doesn’t require a deep investment or huge time commitment — though, perhaps ironically, it does suck you in for hours, as you go down the TikTok rabbit hole,” she says. Ali compared TikTok’s appeal to casino games. “Immersive designs are indeed compelling and loss of control they facilitate is similar to that found in casino games and gambling. Indeed, the pull-down to see the next TikTok video can be compared to spinning a roulette.”

Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama, agrees that the short-form nature of TikTok is crucial to its success. “When you only have 60 seconds, you have to make every second count, so often TikTok videos start out a lot more exciting,” she says. When creators are forced to pull you in immediately or lose you altogether, they’re going to front-load the video with some really good material first. This makes TikToks more engaging than other forms of video content, such as YouTube, where the video upload limits are 15 minutes for unverified YouTubers and 12 hours for verified users.

There’s also the fact that TikTok offers radically different content than other social media platforms. Facebook has crafted a good chunk of its identity around connecting you with people you already know, or getting to know people through Facebook groups and communities. Instagram, meanwhile, is a place to self-promote, and share the more aspirational sides of our lives. But in a time when Americans, at least, are stuck at home not doing anything interesting, the best we really have to offer on Instagram is reposting other people’s thoughts to our Stories. Facebook, meanwhile, has been declining in popularity among young people long before the pandemic took hold.

“Instagram is boring in the sense that it’s typically limited to either people you already know fairly well or people who are ‘aspirational’” says Catie Connolly, a graduate student in Somerville, Massachusetts who started using TikTok in March, around the time the lockdown began. TikTok is different. “It’s nice to have a middle ground of people who seem generally ‘normal’ and non-celebrity, but who are super creative,” she says.

“I think one of the things about TikTok that really contributed to its rise in popularity is people aren’t afraid to look silly on it. And granted, there’s still some very curated social media perfection on TikTok,” says Maddox. “On Instagram we have influencers trying to show perfect lives and everything is so curated and polished, but then you get on TikTok and even Charli D’Amelio, the most popular TikTokker, is dancing in her bathroom mirror and a hoodie and a face mask.”

Charli D’Amelio

Many of the TikTok users I spoke to also mentioned that the lighthearted and creative nature of the platform is particularly appealing. “I love seeing creatives just go wild on the platform,” says deGrandpre. “I tried making my own art using a technique I saw on TikTok and I definitely checked out a lot of stunts/athletes profiles too… It truly is inspiring if you can catch the good ones that just happen to be relevant to your interests.”

Emily deGrandpre’s art, inspired by art she found on TikTok

It isn’t hard to “catch” the TikTok content relevant to your interests, as deGrandpre puts it. The algorithm is almost terrifyingly accurate at predicting what people want.

“I find that it’s easy to get the For You page to be exactly what you want. Like, mine is almost exclusively Star Wars and other fandoms I’m interested in, Adam Driver, cats, plus-size content creators, and crafting. It really helps me feel more connected to my interests without necessarily having to ‘participate’ in them,” says Amanda Carter, a media specialist in Cincinnati. “It’s a pretty central source of joy for me right now.”

The algorithm relies on a complicated set of inputs to determine what kind of content someone wants to see, according to Wired. When a TikTok is uploaded, it first rolls out to a small group of viewers, whose initial engagement with it helps determine how successful it will be. If users watch the whole TikTok, share it, comment on it, or follow the creator, it signals to the algorithm that it’s safe to push it into the feeds of more users. It also tells the algorithm that the user likes that kind of content, which it will then include in their feed moving forward.

“While algorithmically curated feeds are not TikTok’s invention (think of YouTube as a key player there), they rose it to another level. TikTok’s algorithm does a great job at learning users’ content preferences and uses it to capture their attention for extended periods,” says Savic. Instagram, on the other hand, presents users primarily with content from accounts they already follow. “This is a finite list and often after some time, it gets boring. Also, if you come back to Insta feed again it will likely show you the same content over again. Yet, TikTok will always serve you endless videos tailored just for you.”

“Instagram is so boring now and those that are posting outings and exciting things… it’s like ‘read the room! Stay home!’” says Carter.

I can’t say whether the accounts that Carter follows will begin to read the room, but Instagram certainly has. Instagram Reels, its follow-up to the doomed TikTok-like app Lasso, launched August 5. It appears as if it will be very similar to TikTok, offering users the ability to add music clips to 15-second-long videos (unlike TikTok’s 60-second limit). Reels will be found on the Explore page within the app, within the creator’s regular Instagram Stories, and on a special Reels tab on the users’ story.

“Young people are a big part of TikTok’s already impressive user base, and it might be difficult to attract them just by copying features. I think Reels (or any other competitor for that matter) will need to offer something new to it, not just replicate,” says Savic.

Still, she thinks the future of Reels is still up in the air, because TikTok’s political situation — President Trump wants to ban it in the United States, while Microsoft is considering acquiring it — will impact how TikTok operates moving forward. If TikTok is banned, and Reels launches at the same time, it’s possible that former TikTokkers will flock to Reels, regardless of how well its features match up.

But TikTok offers something different, something Instagram doesn’t: a diversion. Instagram acts as a reflection of the lives we want to lead — glamorous, or outdoorsy, or justice-oriented and revolutionary. Overall (and of course there are exceptions to every rule), TikTok is a place for entertainment, joy, absurdity, and fun. While that might be reproduced to some degree on Instagram, it’s still sitting next door to the photo of your best friend’s baby and an influencer’s gorgeous poolside vacation, making it less of a total escape than it is on TikTok.

TikTok is a unique, special place, and I say this as someone who can’t use it because all the noise makes me anxious — it’s as if I’m stuck inside a funhouse. Its algorithm seems uniquely powerful, and its disconnect from the goings-on of the outside world — most people aren’t using TikTok to update users on news events or the minutiae of their lives — is part of its appeal.

“I don’t feel good about praising it, but it’s brilliant. It sees inside my soul even when I engage with other content outside my interests just, like, as part of my job,” says Dickson. In contrast, Instagram, she says, doesn’t know her very well. “I guess at the end of the day that’s all anyone really wants from a platform. To be seen. Which is tragic.”

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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