Blogging is allegedly dead, and for the writing crowd, newsletters supposedly are the new thing. Most of my writing energy this year has gone towards my book manuscript (don’t ask for an ETA because IDK), but with the pandemic, I’ve found new ways to express my creativity.
Aside from painting and piano, I’ve become obsessed with TikTok. I’ve always had a penchant for social media, but the TikTok algorithm has sparked new curiosity in me to understand how and why it works the way it does. And, it’s really fun to shamelessly create silly videos.
I’ve learned a lot since I downloaded TikTok in summer 2019 and first went viral in December 2019. I taught a webinar with aSweatLife about TikTok, and I’ve talked about it on the CHAARG podcast multiple times. I’m no TikTok star by any means, though I am at the point to share my thoughts and musings on this addicting new platform.
(I’ve been saying it all year that Instagram will be dead, in Facebook terms, by EOY and I stand by that statement.)
My First Time Going *Viral*
Last December, we had our office holiday party on the same day that we were supposed to wear college spirit gear. I confidently wore a Loyola shirt underneath a Christmas sweater vest, and before catching the bus, I took a six-second selfie video of my outfit, complete with festive socks. I liked how my hair looked, so I posted it on TikTok with some trending song. I had four followers at the time, all of whom were close friends.
I didn’t check TikTok all day. No one else really dressed up at work, so I felt slightly insecure all day among my new coworkers with my excessively Mary Kristmas cheer.
Over the weekend, I started to see the video get more than my typical 10-20 views. No one was liking it, so I was convinced that teenagers were making fun of this dorky 25-year-old trying to make a TikTok. Views started reaching the thousands, and I couldn’t help but marvel. I mean, I was in the middle of writing a book about an influencer, so I guess it was good research?
I’ll never forget that on the same day that Trump got impeached, the engagement started kicking in with a very specific demographic: middle-aged, blue-collar men. Their usernames and profile pictures displayed very unique identifiers that shocked me because I didn’t realize these people were even on TikTok!
Everyone was very polite and complimenting me (can’t complain), and I suddenly had 2000 followers. I can’t imagine how Charli feels with 100 million because 2000 felt like I had made it BIG.
But why to them? Why did the algorithm deliver me to their FYP? Yeah, I’m blonde, but why?
It’s made me question who the algorithm is intended to benefit and to what end – the creator, the viewer, advertisers, or the platform itself?
Fast Forward to 2020
A year later, many more people have joined TikTok since the pandemic, and I’ve had several more TikToks go viral. Most of them are stupid, but some are meaningful about mental health or politics.
(Note: none of my dancing TikToks have gone viral – I GET IT!)
Personally, I love the content I consume on my FYP, but it still is fun to experiment with my own content. I actually recently made a new (secret) TikTok to see if I could get different results. My target audience is always the girls/gays/theys, but no, somehow the algorithm still reads my videos for that select demographic of rural men. What gives?!
Instagram has Reels, Twitter has Fleets, and Snapchat has Spotlights. These are all great for creating content, but I think the real key to success is the algorithm and understanding exactly what the users want to see. The more you use the TikTok algorithm, the better it gets at understanding you. Or does it?
(This also helps advertisers get more personalized ads in front of viewers, but I digress.)
When trying to understand any algorithm, I think about the MIT Moral Machine. This is a “game” to experiment with the morality of self-driving car decisions, choosing the lesser of two evils. Similarly, algorithms are built by people, and while their rules aren’t necessarily built by people with biases, those can be reflected over time in extreme instances.
Or maybe not even extreme instances. It’s obvious that high-quality videos are preferred, but pretty people with beautiful homes definitely have a higher chance of going viral. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible for people in prison on cheap Androids to go viral, but it’s less likely.
There have been many concerns about the security of TikTok, especially since it’s a *gasp* Chinese company… as if the domestic social media giants haven’t already violated our privacy. Trump still hasn’t banned it because TikTok changed to abide by the rules, we think? And, at this rate, they’re still doing better than the other platforms.
Facebook has already been a ghost town for several years, and more people are leaving due to political censorship. Instagram is heavily pushing its shopping features while owning its position in the market as a content curator/copier. And Snapchat is offering a comparable creator fund to encourage their new Spotlights while discouraging reusing content from other platforms.
TikTok is working with Shopify and Walmart, so it’s on its way there to join the platforms for selling out. This is no surprise, and for now, an unfortunate price for all social media.
Social media is past the point of no return for creating echo chambers. There will always be a new platform or feature competing for its stake in the market (RIP Quibi, jk I never tried it).
If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s to lose expectations. Maybe this golden age of TikTok will live in memories the same way that we remember learning how to code HTML on Myspace as preteens. For the time being, I’ll continue my own little social experiments because they’re fun and fascinating.