One of the most interesting — and most confronting — features on my smartphone is the one that allows me to see how many minutes I spend per day on which app. That I spend an average of 5 hours daily on my smartphone does not surprise anyone who has ever met me because the device sticks to my hand.
One of the apps I open daily is TikTok, the platform on which millions of short videos are posted every hour. There are so many it’s impossible to watch them all. Fortunately, TikTok helps me by automatically selecting the videos that are really something for me. Super convenient.
On the platform, I see three different types of posts passing by in my feed:
- Popular posts that were often liked by millions of people
- TikToks that have just been posted and have only been viewed by a handful of people, often made by people from Belgium or the Netherlands
- Posts that the algorithm thinks fit me
TikTok can do the latter because it knows a lot about the videos in question and me. Which videos have I watched multiple times, and which have I swiped away after a second? What’s on the video that TikTok wants to show me? What videos do people watch that are a good match for me? What smartphone am I using? What time is it? Where am I? These are all pieces of data that TikTok uses to algorithmically select The Perfect Video For Thomas.
The “magic” algorithm
Anyone who spends much time on TikTok will soon feel that TikTok knows a lot about you. Yet TikTok’s algorithm is not radically different from other social media. It just feels more intrusive.
Here’s the thing: on TikTok, your entire screen is always filled with a single message. When you watch a video, you don’t see three previous or subsequent posts ready on the same screen, but just that one video. TikTok knows, based on what I watch, click or swipe away, how I feel about exactly this one post. Your feed on Facebook and Twitter also has some good recommendations, but those social media outlets aren’t as good at tracking how many seconds you spend looking at a specific post. When you see a post that suits you on TikTok, again full screen, you feel this must be an excellent algorithm.