Sep 10, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Join Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Dave Lawler tomorrow at 12:30pm ET for a live, virtual event on U.S. foreign policy in the post-pandemic world, featuring Carnegie Endowment for International Peace president William J. Burns, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace vice president for studies Evan A. Feigenbaum, and Carnegie Middle East Center director Maha Yahya.

Today's Login is 1,639 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Inside TikTok's killer algorithm

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

TikTok revealed Wednesday some of the elusive workings of the prized algorithm that keeps hundreds of millions of users worldwide hooked on the viral video app, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: The code TikTok uses to pick your next video is a large part of what has led the company to achieve broad popularity along with a remarkable $20–$30 billion valuation. The key asset is in play as TikTok's Chinese parent prepares to sell its U.S. operation amid fears about its relationship with China's government.

Driving the news: On a call with reporters Wednesday, TikTok executives said they were revealing details of their algorithm and data practices to dispel myths and rumors about the company.

  • "We're a 2-year-old company operating with the expectations of a 10-year-old company," said Michael Beckerman, TikTok's vice president in charge of U.S. public policy. "We didn't have the opportunity to grow up in the golden years of the internet, when tech companies could do no wrong. We grew up in the techlash age, where there's a lot of skepticism of platforms, how they moderate content and how their algorithms work."
  • TikTok executives gave reporters a virtual tour of its new "transparency center" in Los Angeles. The center will have areas for people to demo computer modules that showcase how TikTok's algorithms and data practices work.

That's assuming TikTok survives in its current form.

  • President Trump has set Sept. 15 as a deadline for the company's Chinese owner, ByteDance, to find an American purchaser, or it will face a ban in the U.S.
  • China recently instituted new export restrictions on software that could prevent TikTok's algorithm from being included in any sale.

How it works: TikTok's algorithm uses machine learning to determine what content a user is most likely to engage with and serve them more of it, by finding videos that are similar or are liked by people with similar user preferences.

  • When users open TikTok for the first time, they are shown eight popular videos featuring different trends, music and topics. After that, the algorithm will continue to serve the user new iterations of eight videos based on which videos the user engages with and what the user does.
  • The algorithm identifies videos similar to those that have engaged a user based on video information, which could include details like captions, hashtags or sounds. Recommendations also take into account user device and account settings, which include data like language preference, country setting, and device type.
  • Once TikTok collects enough data about the user, the app is able to map a user's preferences in relation to similar users and group them into "clusters." Simultaneously, it also groups videos into "clusters" based on similar themes, like "basketball" or "bunnies."
  • Using machine learning, the algorithm serves videos to users based on their proximity to other clusters of users and content that they like.
  • TikTok's logic aims to avoid redundancies that could bore the user, like seeing multiple videos with the same music or from the same creator.

Yes, but: TikTok concedes that its ability to nail users' preferences so effectively means that its algorithm can produce "filter bubbles," reinforcing users' existing preferences rather than showing them more varied content, widening their horizons, or offering them opposing viewpoints.

  • The company says it's studying filter bubbles, including how long they last and how a user encounters them, to get better at breaking them when necessary.
  • Since filter bubbles can reinforce conspiracy theories, hoaxes and other misinformation, TikTok's product and policy teams study which accounts and video information — themes, hashtags, captions, and so on — might be linked to misinformation, then send those flagged to the company's global content reviewers.
2. Smartphones struggle to capture SF's orange sky

An image of San Francisco's orange sky Wednesday, taken with a Samsung Galaxy Note 20. Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

The apocalyptic orange sky in San Francisco Wednesday was the talk of the town — and well beyond. However, many people found their efforts to capture the surreal images stymied, as their iPhones "corrected" the smoke-filled sky to a more natural hue.

The big picture: Smartphone cameras do a great job in many situations thanks to software that automatically tries to improve a shot's composition, focus, and settings like white and color balance. But those adjustments can also get in the way of capturing what's unique about some of life's most vivid images.

After waking up to the orange sky, I first tried to shoot out my back door, but found my iPhone was adjusting the sky to a much more common gray. On social media, I saw lots of others having the same experience with both still and video coming from their phones.

Around midday, I headed to Bernal Heights Park, which overlooks the city, including downtown SF and the Bay Bridge, armed with an iPhone 11 Pro Max, a Pixel 4a, a Galaxy Note 20 and my Canon DSLR.

  • The Galaxy Note 20 did the best job of the smartphones (see above) at capturing the vivid hues of the sky, but none of the phones came close to what I was able to capture using the Canon.
  • The one shot where my iPhone was able to capture the sky's hue also included our orange Honda Fit.

Yes, but: In all cases I used the device's default settings. Bloomberg reporter Sarah Frier said she used the app Hallide to avoid the iPhone's color correction.

The bottom line: This was a moment for my Canon to prove that, despite its bulk, it can't always be replaced by a smartphone. As evidence, see After you Login below.

3. Axios review: Microsoft Surface Duo

Photo: Microsoft

With Surface Duo, Microsoft has re-entered the phone business (sort of), with a dual-screen device running Android. The unique hardware and software combination makes it more than just a curiosity, even if it's likely to be a niche player at best.

Why it matters: Microsoft isn't going to suddenly become a major player in mobile hardware, but the Duo does give the company a novel option for Microsoft loyalists.

Details: Teased a year ago and formally introduced last month, Surface Duo becomes officially available today, starting at $1,400. AT&T will sell the device directly, while an unlocked version that works on all three major carriers will be sold by Microsoft, Best Buy and other retailers.

What's hot:

  • The design is elegant, useful and seemingly hearty: Of all the new crop of folding devices I've used, Microsoft's is the first that doesn't feel delicate and precious but rather built to be used.
  • Two screens makes for great multitasking. I enjoyed more easily moving among my mainstay apps: Slack, Outlook, Twitter and the browser.
  • It's first-class Android. By partnering with Google, you really do get the best of Android in terms of Google's apps and access to the Google Play store combined with all of Microsoft's mobile apps.

What's not:

  • The camera is the Duo's glaring hardware weakness. There's only one small sensor, and you have to fold your phone one way to take selfies and another to capture what's in front of you. That makes Surface Duo ill-suited for candid shots and results in an overall subpar camera experience.
  • Few programs are optimized for Duo's two displays, so you're usually just running one program in each screen. Over time, it would be nice if more programs make full use of the dual screens, as Microsoft has for some of its own programs, like Outlook, and Amazon has with its Kindle app.
  • The phone supports all the major LTE networks, but lacks 5G support. That's not a huge issue today, but could prove frustrating over the life of the device.
  • Surface Duo suffers from the same price problem as other multi-screen devices: It costs as much as two phones put together.
4. Uber exec joins health care startup Ro's board

Tony West, Uber's chief legal officer (and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris’ brother-in-law), is joining the board of directors of health care startup Ro, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

The big picture: The coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on telemedicine companies like Ro as Americans look to balance social distancing measures and health care needs.

  • Ro, which started in 2017 by selling hair loss supplements and erectile dysfunction medication to men, has since expanded to other online medical services, including an online pharmacy for $5 generic medications.
  • Ro says its pharmacy service has seen monthly growth of 80% in recent months.

"The first thing he wanted to know was how are we taking cost out of the system," Ro CEO Zachariah Reitano tells Axios of his conversations with West after an investor put them in touch.

  • West was also interested in whether the company is helping decrease geographical and racial inequities in health care access, adds Reitano.
  • In a separate interview with Axios about his interest in Ro, West highlighted his work defending the Affordable Care Act in court as associate attorney general under President Obama.

Yes, but: Uber, West's employer, is battling the state of California over reclassifying drivers as employees, which would give them access to benefits like employer-sponsored health insurance.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Mobile Future Forward wraps up today online, including my interview with Verizon Business CEO Tami Erwin.
  • Oracle is slated to report earnings.

Trading Places

  • Former NSA chief Keith Alexander joined Amazon's board of directors, a move that critics seized on as further evidence of the company's focus on surveillance as a business.
  • ServiceNow named former SAP executive Vanessa Smith as senior VP, go-to-market, a new role reporting to chief revenue officer Kevin Haverty.


  • Ireland's privacy regulator has sent Facebook an initial order to stop sending EU data to the U.S. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Microsoft confirmed that the higher-end version of its next-generation gaming console, the Xbox Series X, will launch Nov. 10 for $499. (CNET)
  • Epic Games says Apple is ending its ability to use "Sign in with Apple" within Fortnite, as the companies' legal battle continues. (Epic Games)
  • Nearly a decade after first being proposed in Eric Ries' book, "The Lean Startup," the Long-Term Stock Exchange is has begun trading. (Protocol)
6. After you Login

Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

Meanwhile, here's what the view from Bernal Heights Park looked like through my Canon DSLR.

And here is the photo where the iPhone was able to show the orange sky.

Photo: Ina Fried/Axios
Ina Fried