The expansion of social media into our everyday lives seems to be unstoppable. Even for those of us who stubbornly refuse to sign up for platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, these services influence us on a daily basis: Twitter has become the platform of choice for companies, celebrities, and politicians to give their immediate reactions to current events; and major events like parties and reunions are planned via Facebook, causing headaches and potential missed opportunities for those without an account. And as this expansion continues, new social networking services are popping up that re-write the rules of how social apps should operate, exploiting our collective human desire for connection and stimulation with increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence programs. One such app is TikTok, which paves the way for the future of social media by doing away with the traditional framework of aggregating content from accounts selected by the user in exchange for pursuing engagement as its primary goal.
Unlike most popular social media services, TikTok was created not in the United States but in China, and not as an independent start-up but as the flagship product of an established artificial-intelligence and machine learning company called ByteDance. Whereas other platforms onboard new users by encouraging them to connect with the accounts of people they know, TikTok drops you straight into a never-ending stream of content, aggregated seemingly at random, before you even make an account. You’re not immediately invited to view the content created by people you know, as you might expect; rather, the app invites you to follow trends, organized by hashtags under the “Discover” tab, and create content befitting these trends to gather an audience, albeit an often-ephemeral one.
While the short videos you see in the app seem to be hand-picked for their humor, creativity, or charm, they are in fact curated by complex algorithms fed by data collected on the app’s massive user base. Over time, the app leverages machine learning and artificial intelligence to build a profile of your viewing and engagement habits, fueling an ever-more addictive and engaging stream of content tailored to your preferences. This shift away from content posted by your friends towards content the app predicts you’d enjoy is representative of a larger overall trend in the evolution of social media; as platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have grown, their feeds began to organize and select content according to a set of rules defined by the company, rather than by the user.
This approach has proven to be an overwhelmingly successful one for ByteDance, so much so that concerns have been raised about the app’s addictive qualities, particularly among the community’s younger members. In response to these concerns, the company introduced a “Digital Wellbeing” section of the app’s Privacy and Settings menu, enabling users and their parents to set restrictions on how long the app can be used per day. Additionally, many have expressed worries about the app’s potential to show inappropriate or dangerous content to a young audience, and TikTok was fined for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection App in the US, leading the company to implement a kids-only mode which prevents children from uploading data to the app. These concerns, and the resulting updates to the app, represent the exceedingly few instances in which TikTok’s developers have taken a direct approach in managing the spread and proliferation of content, which is almost entirely directed by a combination of the community’s contributions and the algorithm’s attempts to proliferate attention-grabbing content.
TikTok represents a fundamental shift in the social app ecosystem, away from the goal of connecting users to one another and towards the goal of generating engagement for its own sake. All aspects of the app’s design, from its content-focused front-end to its leverage of sophisticated algorithms to curate content, are engineered to maximize engagement while remaining completely agnostic as to what type of content gains traction. This focus on engagement explains the app’s resounding success, especially among young people: in the modern social app ecosystem, developers compete with one another not for your money but for your attention, and as TikTok is singularly focused on maximizing its share of your attention, it sucks the life out of competing social apps. As such, one can expect other platforms to continue to gravitate towards this engagement-centered philosophy, and while the greater social ramifications of this approach are as of yet hard to predict, they are bound to be substantial.