TikTok and the Algorithmic Promise of Virality

This weekend, I tried and failed to master TikTok. The insanely popular social network, used by nearly 700 million people, makes me feel like I’m 100 million years old, with a totally different way of consuming content and a deeply weird, lonely vibe, based on the fact that I can’t find anyone I know on there because of how it sets up accounts. Regular, normal networks allow me to search my contacts or my Facebook friends that may be on said network, but not TikTok - despite connecting my contacts and my Facebook account, I have been able to find roughly 8 people I know.

If you don’t know what TikTok is, it’s another vertical video network, but with the added bonus of a chaotic algorithm that chooses, somewhat randomly, who will have their video “go viral,” so to speak. Videos can be either up to 15 or 60 seconds long, and technologically it’s actually kind of impressive - there’re all sorts of effects and filters and captions and other things you can add. These would all be a lot more interesting and fun to me if I could follow the 3000+ people I follow across other networks on there, and they could also know I’m there, and I could not feel like I had just started a new account on a new network and thus had to work out what to do. It is bewildering and exhausting, with no zero-effort posts and what feels like millions of high-effort, perfectly-manicured videos. Part of this is how good the app is at enabling anyone to video edit, and also the seeming obsessiveness of some users.

I recognize how everything I’m writing here makes me sound like I am a cave man dropped into modern times.

However, I think this experience is somewhat by design. TikTok is merciless - it is a constant, unending flume of new posts, of new features, there is no breathing room, there is only more content, with seemingly everybody blowing up and going viral except you. There are no shares, no reposts, only the ability to stitch onto someone else’s (where you add onto someone else’s video) or duet with them (IE: you do a video in time with theirs), which means there is no way to go viral other than by the hand of the algorithm.

Specifically, the TikTok algorithm is built to inject chaos into the network. The “for you” tab apparently uses endless datapoints to show you things you might be interested in, and doesn’t seem to have an overwhelming bias toward big accounts. The result is that small (or new) accounts can have their stuff surfaced to a giant audience totally at random, leading to certain things going viral, huge boosts of followers, and seeming social media stardom being just out of (or within) reach.

Naturally, this has led to entire accounts that exist to tell you how to get more followers, likes and shares. @KennyTBlessed’s entire account is around telling people how to get big on TikTok, which leads to his videos going big, which makes him big on TikTok, so he can tell more people how to get big on TikTok.

Because I hate myself, I went on the #publicrelations hashtag - which sucks, I don’t want to go into it - and also through this guy’s videos, because I was curious. The result is that my “for you” feed is now truly terrible. Between the occasional funny video it’s things like “the no bullshit way to grow on TikTok and instagram” and “if you’re scared about Dogecoin being at this price, here’s why you don’t need to worry.” Between that are various things like “here’re some great side hustle ideas” and “the 15 day business challenge” (not looking it up, don’t need to be angry today), as well as, for some reason, three videos of different law enforcement officers for some reason.

It’s video after video of people looking smug with the caption “I decided to take TikTok seriously and now I have 513,000 followers” and webring-style “if you’re under 5k followers please like this and share this and follow everyone” posts. The algorithm has apparently decided that not only do I want to be big on TikTok, but that the way to make me big on TikTok is to create as sense of FOMO that I too am mere minutes (or is it weeks?) from having a huge following that I can now do something with.

It almost worked - I definitely sat there for 10 minutes thinking “huh, maybe I could do this and get big in the public relations hashtag, that might be good for business” before realizing that video is exhausting to do regularly and, also, sucks for my particular line of business. Furthermore, what would that actually do for me? But I wanted to be big for the sake of being big - the idea of having a big account, and uh, that somehow leads to money, right?

And then the continual pressure to keep going viral, again and again, and keep gaming the algorithm to keep your persona going. Because of the algorithm’s capriciousness, even those with established followings keep having to work out what the algorithm wants next. More worryingly, there are entire communities that exist trying to go viral constantly by making videos about how to go viral on TikTok, a nightmarish social media ouroboros built for multiple generations obsessed with being famous for the sake of being famous.

The TikTok algorithm abandons all structure, all organization - each video consumes your entire screen and is gone before you can even think about it. The algorithm surfaced what appears to be a teenager losing all of his college money on Bitcoin, with most of his videos involving him crying and thousands of comments making fun of him or reassuring him it’ll go back up. Maybe it’s a bit, maybe it’s not, but it’s weirdly haunting, and I have no idea why I had to see it. And now this guy has 5 million views on one video, but only 80,000 followers - with seemingly none of them transmuting into growth on his linked YouTube channel (90 subscribers as of writing this post).

He is tepidly famous entirely because the TikTok algorithm has deemed his posts relevant to a mass of people, despite them being predominantly a teenager crying and looking at a website on his computer.

And that’s kind of the nightmarish point of Tiktok - that anyone can theoretically go viral, and thus you could too. There is no place where you can chill and shoot the shit with your buddies, or catch up with your friends’ vacations. This is a creators’ network that exists to trap you in the app with an endless flow of content you cannot look away from, assuming that they work out what it is you like quickly enough. It isn’t about following your friends - it’s about creating as many reasons for you to keep propagating the network as possible, either through sharing or creating, which creates more eyeballs on TikTok, which allows TikTok to sell more data and more advertisements.

The lack of the ability to find and follow your friends at first feels like a negative, but it allows TikTok to force you into looking at the algorithm, which might surface a few random accounts that you should follow, or force you to look at a trend. By promoting accounts that aren’t big, TikTok gives you a ‘varied’ experience that also gives the person you’re following/sharing from the feeling that they could go big, if they just try harder. Shelly Banjo of Bloomberg’s Foundering podcast suggested that TikTok’s plan is to show you and your friends vastly different feeds:

ByteDance has a very different point of view, which is that what you care about has nothing to do with what your friends care about.

In that sense, TikTok isn’t really a social network - it is an endless streaming network with hundreds of millions of free TV channels that ByteDance occasional pays for. Where Twitter occasionally runs out of things for you to read, TikTok always has more, and if you show even the slightest sign of being interested in “going big” on TikTok, it will throw constant reminders of people who have gone big just by following a certain amount of tips that mostly comes down to “post good stuff 2-3 times a day every day of the week,” with a side helping of bizarre guilt trips about not doing it right.

It is actually kind of brilliant. It’s not remotely the first algorithmically-driven social network, but the sheer speed of content creation and the genuine “it can happen to anyone” nature of virality on the network, TikTok answers both the question of why you should post and why you should stay on the app. Where it’s difficult to go viral on Twitter beyond “hope that a few big accounts pick this up,” TikTok has TikTok Algorithm Optimization - creating new ways to attract the algorithm to make your account or post go viral.

In many ways it’s the anti-Clubhouse - there is no question of what to do on TikTok, no problem in search of a solution, just a constant flow of asynchronous videos and the means through which to see more of them. It is seemingly a mess, but utterly organized and algorithmically tuned.

It’s also exhausting. I don’t know. I don’t want to jump on a social network and feel like I have to do work on it, and my feed is now people yelling at me that I have to do more to grow on Tiktok, but I don’t want to hear about that anymore, and I’ve unfollowed the ones I’d followed but I still get yelled at. Maybe I’m too old, or maybe I’m too used to my portable social network groups that I can jump between apps on.

Perhaps the next social networks aren’t even about finding our friends and seeing what’s up - they’re about seeing a wider world and experiencing it at 250 miles an hour.