Mar 21, 2022 - Technology

How to think smartly about TikTok

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Never has the world seen a social media app spread more wildly — or an algorithm that anticipates your desires more precisely — than TikTok. 

Why it matters: It's hard to find a kid who's not mindlessly scrolling this never-ending stream of short videos. Two-thirds of U.S. teenagers (63%) are on TikTok, according to the market research firm Forrester.

  • TikTok hit 1 billion global users in five years — far more quickly than nearly every other global social media network in history.
  • The app knows young kids are on: There's an "Under 13" setting.

How it works: TikTok's magic lies in its algorithm, which instantly spots what you like and feeds you more and more of it. There are consequences to letting the app in on your conscious and subconscious desires.

  • Amy Poehler has said her "For You" page — TikTok's main personalized feed — knows she's having a bad day before she does.

Here's how TikTok spread like wildfire, according to Axios' social media expert Sara Fischer:

  1. Hyper-personalized: Your TikTok feed is weighted toward topics that interest you and that you engage with, rather than being biased toward famous people or big brands. So your trends become not just part of how the algorithm sees you, but how you see the app.
  2. Fresh faces: From the get-go, TikTok prioritized quality over who was posting — super different from other platforms, which boosted celebrities. "Anyone could become viral overnight," Sara told us. "You had 'nobodies' making millions of dollars."
  3. Like TV, not social media: Unlike other feeds, you're not inundated with people you know. On TikTok, you determine your feed by what you gobble up. 
  4. Endless scroll: You can be as passive or interactive as you want. Other feeds want you to constantly comment, like or share. On TikTok, you keep watching and the algorithm feeds you a bottomless buffet. 

Beware: This insanely engrossing app has distinct national security implications. It is owned by Chinese tech giant Bytedance — and can be influenced by China.

  • The app has been caught censoring videos that Beijing doesn't like — such as mentions of Tiananmen Square or Tibetan independence.
  • TikTok says it doesn't share its data troves — including information on America's kids and military users — with China. But that's hard to verify, and there's no telling what could happen in the future, though TikTok is nearing a deal to store U.S. user data with Oracle, out of China's reach.

The bottom line: TikTok can be a fun and creative outlet. But people — especially parents — need to understand the app's soaring popularity and have conversations about how to use it safely.

🏁 Editor's note: This article appeared first in Axios Finish Line, a new newsletter in the Axios Daily Essentials package.

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