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Lithium TikTok is dangerously personalized

Feb. 25, 2021
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The first time I logged on to TikTok, I wasn’t particularly entertained by the content I was shown. It was generic—boring, even. I remember asking my friends where to find good videos and why they were so engrossed in an app that was so random and mindless. The answer I received to both those questions was just give it time.

While at the moment this answer felt cryptic, now, as one of the app’s billion regular users, I understand exactly what my friends meant. The app offers two main pages, a “Following” page and a “For You” page. Every TikTok user I know spends the whole of their time on their For You page, which is entirely regulated by TikTok’s increasingly powerful algorithm. Based on how you interact with each video you’re shown (i.e. how much of a video you watch, commenting, liking, sharing, and repeating), the app learns what content to display without any conscious action on the user’s part. So when my friends said to “just give it time,” they were telling me to give the app’s algorithm a few hours to learn the inside of my brain and display content accordingly. 

This algorithm is what sets TikTok apart from other apps. Because its main feed isn’t based on who a user is following, you’re shown content based on who you are at a purely impulsive level. A lack of conscious choice allows for the app to become intensely personalized, each user being led down their own completely unique content rabbit hole. What has millions of likes on my For You page will likely not show up on my brother’s at all.

While personalized content itself is not a danger, I am troubled by the lack of conscious choice in what users are shown and I’m concerned by the completely private nature of each user’s feed. I’m left-leaning and have consistently been fed evidence refuting QAnon, for example—and I have no doubts that right-leaning individuals are being fed evidence supporting the theory. Unlike Twitter, where the information on both ends of the political spectrum is monitored and open for everyone to view, on TikTok there isn’t an intuitive way to access what the others are seeing. Someone interested in exposing themselves to differing perspectives would have to go out of their way to search for content and would mess up their pretty curated For You page in the process. In withholding opposing perspectives from the user’s main feed, the app naturally creates a series of private, unregulated echo chambers. 

These echo chambers not only have control over political content, but every aspect of personality and life. Within niches as innocent as gardening to those as dangerous as dieting, TikTok’s echo chambers limit content diversity and normalize extremes. With the app’s success hinging on its ability to keep the user scrolling, the For You page can easily turn into a hub of your obsessions and anxieties. As long as you keep scrolling, it doesn’t matter how beneficial or harmful the content may be.

Now more than ever, when interactions in the digital realm outnumber those in real life, it’s easy to get sucked into the warped worldview TikTok serves on a silver platter. It’s easy to believe that the viewpoints and interests you hold are shared by a larger collective than they actually are—that the niche is normal. 

Bearing in mind the limits of my own perception, I reached out to other Gen-Z TikTok users to gain a more holistic look at the app and how it’s affecting our generation. As expected, compared to my individual For You page, there was far greater breadth to the content we were collectively viewing. Some people I spoke to were seeing Addison Rae and her trending dances, while others were seeing videos about fashion and history and anime. The one TikTok category nearly everyone seemed to have in common was skit-style comedy, as typified by creators like @snarkymarky and @adamrayokay.

However, regardless of the content people were viewing, there were a few opinions about TikTok that appeared to be shared across the board.

When asked how TikTok affects viewers’ sense of individuality, Kenneth, a 20-year-old Lithium writer, best articulated a perspective that several others held. He noted, “I’ll see TikToks made by people with really cool lives, or very interesting room set-ups, or nice fashion, and in that sense, I feel less unique. There’s a reason why people love to comment ‘main character vibes’ on people’s TikToks; I think it allows them to see themselves in the person making the TikTok, especially if they fit what the app has deemed cool.” 

A few people also related to my fear of an unregulated feed. Shruthi, age 15, explicitly said, “One thing about TikTok that scares me is that some people rely on [their For You pages] for general knowledge—even though most of the time [these videos are inaccurate] because the credibility of TikTok isn’t monitored.” 

Everyone I spoke to agreed that TikTok’s structure could permanently change our behavior and even prove detrimental to our generation. However, these interviews also served as a reminder that to the average user, TikTok is, above all else, entertaining. Robert, age 20, emphasized, “When it comes to TikTok I don’t really compare myself as much as I would on Instagram or Twitter. It’s mainly just fun for me.” 

While TikTok’s algorithm may be one of its most dangerous features, it also allows for one of the app’s best attributes—privacy. On TikTok, your interests aren’t on display for everyone in your contacts to see; you aren’t expected to post or behave a certain way; you are in your own content bubble, free to like what you like. Privacy allows for amusement to take precedence. 

Although TikTok may have mastered entertainment, I remain hung up on the incredibly aggressive means by which it is achieved. A platform so successful and mindlessly addictive shouldn’t be brushed off as “just fun”—it must be carefully monitored by its creators and users. It must be recognized as not only a platform for funny clips but a disseminator of knowledge both true and false, an accelerator of trends both healthy and harmful. 

Unlike its predecessor, Vine, I feel TikTok is going to be with us for the long run. The boredom and disconnect of the pandemic have provided the perfect opportunity for TikTok to root itself in the regular scrolling habits of millions. At this point, even its competitors are translating its format into copycats like Instagram Reels and Snapchat Spotlight. Bearing this in mind, advising teens to delete or disengage with the app is a demanding and out-of-touch solution. Alternatively, I suggest we try to remain conscious on a platform that is designed for unconscious swiping. Hanging on to awareness of our own echo chambers and contextualizing our lives within the real world as opposed to the digital might be the best way to engage with TikTok without allowing it control over our perceptions and lives. 

After an embarrassingly long time scrolling, walking through my neighborhood reminds me that not everyone is a bucket-hat-wearing, Murakami-reading, feta-pasta-eating, college-aged leftist—and thank God for that. I may not delete the app anytime soon, but I can, at the very least, stick my head out of its rabbit hole.

Visual by Kaylina Kodlick