While the pandemic raged 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 TikTok is a mystery box, like a slot machine, you never know what will come up next. When you first sign up TikTok does not assign you a bunch of celebrities or popular accounts to follow; they don’t explicitly ask for your interests. Instead, it just plays videos, and you can watch each video or swipe up to skip to the next one.
I was amazed at how well TikTok chose videos for me, given I had not given it any information. I was pretty sure it was customizing my feed based on “watch time”, 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.
The honeymoon period eventually ended. While the videos were often visually stunning, weird, funny, or shocking, it was too often a frenetic melange, a never-ending syrupy sweet firehose. Also, while videos were never repeated, there were many variations on the same themes: people flying off huge ramps, hikers revealing amazing views, clever van conversions, theatrical make-up. After a while, I uninstalled TikTok.