If you’re one of the one billion people who spends an average of 50 minutes a day on TikTok every month, you might have wondered why it’s so hard to put down. It’s not because of poor self-control, but because of the way the app is designed.
A revealing internal document ‘TikTok Algo 101’, leaked last year, gave us a glimpse into the artificial intelligence (AI) at the core of the app and an insight into the manipulation of human nature, including our tendency toward boredom and our sensitivity to cultural cues, that help explain just why TikTok is so hard to put down
In order to keep adding new active daily users in their hundreds of thousands, the leaked document shows how the company optimises the stream of videos it serves for two things: ‘retention’ – whether a user comes back – and ‘time spent’ – how long each user spends on the app.
What made TikTok so successful in the first place?
TikTok has had runaway success growth since its launch in 2016 because of three core characteristics of the app.
Content creation is incredibly easy
Instead of having to think creatively about a new post or image, TikTok makes content creation for even the most uninspired user easy – by providing music to dance to, or memes to copy. While an Instagram user might spend hours agonising about just the right photo for their grid, or painstakingly editing a story, TikTok’s format encourages users to jump right in – and that’s just what they do.
TikTok fame can come fast
TikTok recognised that a huge chasm had grown up between YouTube celebrities and their followers, and designed instead for what’s been called the ‘middle class’ on its app. The perceived gap between TikTok stars and their followers doesn’t seem as huge as on YouTube, so the average user is encouraged to think they too can become famous. A clever feature that ensures the first video a user posts garners hundreds of thousands of likes, something that is subsequently almost impossible to replicate, gives new users an early taste of fame that leaves them hungry for more.
TikTok Appears to Reads Your Mind
For many users, TikTok’s algorithm seems almost magical in its startling ability to read their preferences and steer them to just the right place on the app. “The TikTok Algorithm Knew My Sexuality Better Than I Did,” reads one headline in a series about people marvelling at the app’s mind-reading ability.
Is TikTok really all that different from other apps?
TikTok isn’t magic of course. Its recommendation engine works in almost exactly the same way as, say, Facebook’s feed engine does. It analyses all the likes, comments and plays of videos in order to build up a targeted profile of what will appeal to each user.
Some experts think where TikTok’s AI has the edge is in the sheer volume of user data now available to it (those one billion active monthly users) as well as how highly engaged users are with the product. And one feature leaked to the NY Times might be a standout. A journalist reports seeing a leaked screenshot indicating that TikTok’s content moderators have access not just to videos posted publicly, but also to content sent to friends, or uploaded but not shared. If it exists, it would give it a clear advantage over other platforms.
How to resist TikTok?
I get asked in almost every school talk I give by a parent what to do about their child’s TikTok ‘addiction’. I am at pains to reassure them that, unless there are very particular clinical signs, their child is almost certainly not addicted, but rather has been sucked into a habit they are finding it difficult to disengage from.
For younger children, the advice is always to take the device away and allow for a cooling off period before agreeing limits on how and when to use the app. For older children and teens, a quick 101 on how persuasive tech works, as well as a discussion on life goals and ambitions – and how excessive time on the app might be interfering with them – is a useful place to start.
For more about keeping dealing with digital distractions and getting a better balance with tech – pick up a copy of my new book.