What Does Your TikTok Algorithm Say About You?

Sometimes, while scrolling through TikTok—as I did for a horrifying 17 hours and 53 minutes last week—I’ll have a strange out-of-body experience. I’ll see a video, chuckle, then move on to the next before I realize that, “Oh, I really should send that video to Austin.” Only it’s not the last video I’ve watched, it’s suddenly six videos back. Six videos I mindlessly rejected in the time it took me to form a simple, one-sentence thought about sending it to my friend.

None of this is groundbreaking, but it’s evidence of why TikTok prioritizes watch time when choosing what videos to show to each user. As a recent internal document leaked to the New York Times explained, what shows up on your “For You Page” is determined by likes, comments, and importantly, how long you watch various clips. This specificity leads users to constantly wonder, “How does TikTok know this about me?” But another part of the leaked document stuck out to me: TikTok also makes sure to show its users a diversity of content so the viewers don’t get bored. This tidbit changed how I thought about the algorithm. Instead of a direct reflection, it’s more of a horoscope.

It’s not that the TikTok algo can predict your future, but it can reveal certain things about your predilections and preferences that perhaps you haven’t fully realized. I often joke that TikTok thinks I’m an Orthodox Jewish mother. I’m neither of those things, but the first video I saw when I opened the app for “research” for this article was a video of a mom re-enacting how she would tell grandma that her child doesn’t need to give her a hug if they don’t want to, so there you go. Although I don’t follow her, @TheRealMelindaStrauss, whose TikTok page descriptor reads “My Orthodox Jewish Life,” is always on my For You Page, sharing what she made for Shabbos this week. What is it about these videos that appeal to me? Her Shabbos meals always look delicious, which is probably why I linger. But also I am nosy and love a voyeuristic glance into someone’s life, particularly if they follow a set of religious rules foreign to me.

By saying that TikTok thinks I’m a Jewish mom, I’m omitting all the specific things my algorithm knows about me that are more obvious: that I love musicals, Taylor Swift, celebrity gossip, ballet, sordid details of dead socialites’ lives, fashion history, basset hounds, and “A Day in the Life” videos from all professions. (Although one thing you won’t find on my FYP is fashion-industry news or analysis. I spend 17 hours and 53 minutes a week on TikTok as a break from my 50-hour-a-week job, thank you very much.) Does it have me coined as a basic bitch? As a kindergarten teacher who moonlights as an astrologer? Or neither, because it’s a machine that’s just picked up on my habits and throws a curveball in here and there?

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