While the pandemic raged, after checking my normal social media, I would often relax into a comfy position and lose track of time watching one video after another on TikTok. The portal into other people’s homes and minds was entrancing, without the commitment of long-form TV. And it was a mystery box, there was always something unexpected. The refreshing thing about TikTok is that it doesn’t assign you a bunch of celebrities or popular accounts to follow, and they don’t explicitly ask for your interests. Instead, when you open up TikTok for the first time, it shows your For You page and immediately starts playing a video. You don’t scroll through a feed looking for videos to watch; you are always watching a video, but you can swipe up to skip to the next one at any time.
When I first ran TikTok I had not given it any information, so I was surprised by how well it chose videos for me. I was pretty sure it was customizing my feed based on “watch time”, noting which videos I watched and which I skipped, and in a 2020 blog post, TikTok admitted that watching a video “from beginning to end” was a “strong indicator of interest.” But the recommendation algorithm didn’t just send you more of the same; it was a nuanced exploration, cycling through many different threads of interest, circling back to similar themes, but always exploring new directions. It worked so well that it almost seemed like magic.