On a nice summer day in 2019, I was on YouTube when I got another ad for an app called TikTok. This had to be the 100th ad I’d seen while browsing the Internet, and honestly, I was curious. I pushed aside my dignity and downloaded it. I planned to scroll for an hour, make fun of everything and delete it. Could I have been more wrong?
I ended up scrolling for hours and hours and I was surprisingly engaged. What seemed to be an app full of fad dances and lip-syncing had another side to it. There were political videos, cooking, comedy, singing, art and anything you can imagine condensed into a stream of 15-60 second videos.
TikTok has recently exploded in popularity this past year as more and more people pushed aside their dignities and downloaded it during the quarantine.
How does this app keep your eyes glued to the screen?
The algorithm. This mathematical formula collects all your personal information and uses it to generate a feed that will keep you on the app. Each app or social media platform has an algorithm that generates a feed for you, but TikTok is the most notable for having an extremely addicting “for you page.” Each video is at most 60 seconds and if you are not interested, you swipe it away and are immediately given another video. After enough swiping, liking and data collection, TikTok can curate the perfect personal page for you.
The algorithm is not a person, it is a formula with one goal in mind: high user interaction.
High user interaction leads to high profit, and this is where we all lose. Just as the algorithm tries to maintain a high profit, creators on the app also try to use the algorithm to their advantage. This leads to creators lying to make viral videos, exploiting cute babies and dogs, and stepping over ethics. There have been many cases of inappropriate videos going viral and high user interaction was probably the motivation behind the upload.
What does this mean for our generation?
All of the posts we like, online purchases, and our online existence is recorded and used to give us more content to keep us online. Creators are trying to manipulate the algorithm every day to make sure their content is carried into the wave of viral content. This is going to have some negative effects on the younger generation. Young children are now looking up to TikTok stars as their role models. Not to mention they are gaining a low attention span — it can’t be good. A lot of videos are going to be interpreted differently in the eyes of an impressionable child compared to the eyes of an adult.
I constantly find myself wavering between wanting to make the best of the internet, embracing it, and wanting to stay off the grid. The best balance I found was staying off my phone at least one hour after I wake up. But I make sure to maximize the apps that I have. I follow pages that help me study, cook and other helpful things — I avoid the online celeb drama.
The last thing I want to mention is that every day we exist on the Internet, our data is being collected and then sold to companies. This is how free applications make their money. Algorithms run our online experience and, frankly, make it better. If Google wasn’t tracking our buying history, we wouldn’t have the seamless online experience we have today. There is no easy “fix,” rather being aware of what is going on with your data online is best. We need to remember we are not only using the algorithm but the algorithm is using us.
With that said… am I going to delete TikTok?