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TikTok logo displayed on a phone screen is seen in this illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on July 18, 2021. Photo: Ilustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A new video investigation by the Wall Street Journal finds the key to TikTok's success in how the short-video sharing app monitors viewing times.

Why it matters: TikTok is known for the fiendishly effective way that it selects streams of videos tailored to each user's taste. The algorithm behind this personalization is the company's prize asset — and, like those that power Google and Facebook, it's a secret.

How they did it: WSJ created a batch of individualized dummy accounts to throw at TikTok and test how it homed in on each fake persona's traits.

What they found: TikTok responds most sensitively to a single signal — how long a user lingers over a video. It starts by showing new users very popular items, and sees which catch their eyes.

  • The TikTok algorithm works so well that some people think it's reading their minds.

Yes, but: The investigation also found that TikTok — like YouTube — can lure users deep into rabbit holes of increasingly extreme content.

Go deeper: Watch the video.

Go deeper

Tech's message to the Hill: We're not Facebook

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat will appear before Congress Tuesday with a key priority: distinguishing their practices from Facebook's.

Why it matters: Facebook is under attack, and its tech peers don't want to get caught in the crossfire as lawmakers mull legislation to rein in the company.

Oct 26, 2021 - Technology

"We're not Facebook" argument falls flat on Hill

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Senators weren't buying an effort by TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat to argue that they are different from Facebook and Instagram at a hearing on children's online safety Tuesday.

Driving the news: Senators from both parties spent the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee hearing urging executives to go on the record supporting various legislative changes to laws covering online content liability, privacy and children's safety.

Updated 14 mins ago - World

State Department orders evacuation of U.S. diplomats' families from Ukraine

From left, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Chargés d'Affaires in Ukraine Kristina Kvien during a meeting with Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal in Kyiv. Photo: Yevhen Liubimov/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The State Department will begin evacuating families and non-essential staff from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv this week, according to a travel advisory published Sunday evening.

Why it matters: The move underscores U.S. fears that a Russian invasion could destabilize Ukraine and threaten embassy's ability to assist Americans.