Do you ever just sit and wonder how and why TikTok became so popular so quickly? Its popularity rise is as hot, quick and toxic as Lindsey Lohan’s character in Mean Girls. For the first 20 to 30 minutes of the movie, she’s kind of cringe. 30 minutes in and she’s a girl on a mission, rising to the top to become the hottest, most popular girl in school. You could even argue then that would make Regina George’s character Instagram but don’t tempt me into going into a whole Mean Girls social media analogy…
Anyway, how did TikTok become so popular so quickly? I think it’s safe to say that its algorithm plays a huge part. The app’s advanced AI is really good at figuring out what you want to watch. Many people say TikTok knows them better than they know themselves.
Having said this, however, TikTok’s algorithm can’t be all that different from its competitors. Recommender systems are a topic of furious research in computer science, and it would be implausible for TikTok engineers to have made a breakthrough that no one else knows about. So why, then, does TikTok’s algorithm feel so different? If the answer isn’t with TikTok’s algorithm itself then it must lie in the app’s design.
Firstly, scrolling makes avoiding content you don’t want to view a lot, lot easier. It is worth considering here that the average ratio of hearts to views on TikTok is roughly 5%. On YouTube, once you select a video, you’re watching that damn video until you have to reload the home page all over again. On TikTok, swiping up is so quick that you don’t consciously notice. So even YouTube and TikTok operate on the same algorithm, it will feel much more accurate on TikTok.
This leads me onto acknowledging TikTok’s elimination of conscious decision-making. This elimination from the user experience means that videos that cater to our basest impulses do relatively well on TikTok, because people will watch these videos if they show up in their feed but won’t explicitly click on them. The difference is like that of browsing an extensive menu at a restaurant and ordering what the customers next to you are having because it happens to look amazing. The experience feels more exciting, tailored and requires less effort.
Additionally, where other platforms like Instagram and YouTube focus on subscriber or follower counts, TikTok focuses more on specific engagement.
The de-emphasis of subscriptions means that there are fewer superstars, and fewer parasocial relationships. This, in turn, has kept creators from getting too powerful or quite as invested: TikTok pays them a pittance, and didn’t pay at all until 2020. The company has faced criticism for this, and it arguably takes advantage of creators. I don’t hold it up as a model to emulate. But the upside (to TikTok) is that it doesn’t have to worry nearly as much about angering creators as it experiments with its design and algorithm.
What TikTok lacks in superstars it more than makes up for in its “long tail” of creators. The app is far more successful in converting content consumers into creators, in part because its creator tools are superior and more fun. Besides, TikTok has a trick up its sleeve that lowers the barrier to entry for new creators. As many people have observed, every video seems to guarantee an audience.
Furthermore, TikTok is notable for placing a relatively high emphasis on exploration compared to other platforms’ emphasis on exploitation. Every video seems to be guaranteed a certain minimum number of views. If the video performs well in that initial test, it will be served to successively larger batches of users. And from a user perspective, the algorithm keeps trying new topics even after it has found a set of topics that the user is interested in and will reliably watch. Exploration explains why there are an unending variety of incredibly weird niches on TikTok: the app manages to connect those creators to their niche audiences. YouTube has long had niche content, but TikTok seems to have taken it to a new level.
Despite TikTok’s design innovations being well known, other apps have trouble copying them because they were originally designed for a very different experience, and they are locked into it due to their users’ and creators’ preferences. This is a classic example of the innovator’s dilemma: Clay Christensen’s argument that incumbents tend to be held back by their own success—a lesson that’s been largely forgotten as “disruption” turned into a buzzword. As changes in technology make new user experiences possible, TikTok may one day be the struggling incumbent.