How I Trained My TikTok
While the pandemic raged I would often relax into a comfy position and lose track of time watching one video after another on TikTok. The portal into other people’s homes and minds was entrancing, without the commitment of long-form TV. And TikTok is a mystery box, like a slot machine, you never know what will come up next. When you first sign up TikTok does not assign you a bunch of celebrities or popular accounts to follow; they don’t explicitly ask for your interests. Instead, it just plays videos, and you can watch each video or swipe up to skip to the next one.
I was amazed at how well TikTok chose videos for me, given I had not given it any information. I was pretty sure it was customizing my feed based on “watch time”, and in a 2020 blog post, TikTok admitted that watching a video “from beginning to end” was a “strong indicator of interest.” But the recommendation algorithm didn’t just send you more of the same; it was a nuanced exploration, cycling through many different threads of interest, circling back to similar themes, but always exploring new directions. It worked so well that it almost seemed like magic.
The honeymoon period eventually ended. While the videos were often visually stunning, weird, funny, or shocking, it was too often a frenetic melange, a never-ending syrupy sweet firehose. Also, while videos were never repeated, there were many variations on the same themes: people flying off huge ramps, hikers revealing amazing views, clever van conversions, theatrical make-up. After a while, I uninstalled TikTok.
A few weeks later, restless for cheap stimulation, I installed it again. This time I decided to make my own videos. I didn’t want to appear on camera, so I cobbled together videos from podcast snippets and stock footage. I created lyrics for a remix of a Nicki Minaj song and recorded a video of fireworks with Chemical Brothers playing in the background. While I didn’t get millions of views, I did get hundreds. One of my videos was forty seconds long and it was viewed by 1,100 people, for a “cumulative watch time” of six hours. If my video had gotten a million views the cumulative watch time would have been more than a year.
Back in High School, during the cable TV era, I once scored twenty-five dollars by participating in a focus group for a new show. I sat in a semicircle with other attendees pressing buttons on a clunky remote control to indicate how I was enjoying the episode. A few decades later, as the Delta variant of COVID-19 terrorized the world, TikTok cheerily announced that they now had one billion monthly active users, which is 13% of the Earth’s population. Given how TikTok works, however, these were not passive viewers, they were one billion active focus group participants, each providing continuous feedback, for hours a day, and they provide this service for free. Furthermore, all billion viewers were one click away from becoming creators. There were no gatekeepers here.
The TV industry might take months or years to respond to feedback by creating a new show, but with TikTok, a creator could post a video, get feedback and post a better video during the same evening. Looking at the history of videos made by a single creator was like watching Evolution: the lighting improved, the audio became clearer, the jokes were funnier. Now that I better understood how TikTok worked, I changed my approach to watching videos. If a video seemed repetitive or shallow or snacky in any way, I skipped it, and I tried hard to do this within the first few seconds. It required constant discipline to not become entranced by shiny objects. On the other hand, if a video seemed nourishing or worthwhile, but was a bit slow-paced or challenging, I stuck with it. I was mindful that my viewing choices were impacting both the algorithm and the creators.
Quickly my For You page was transformed. I saw long thoughtful videos on motivation, psychology, science, and philosophy. I listened to excerpts of lectures on Stoicism or Zen Buddhism, and speeches by enigmatic Indian meditation gurus. It figured out I was a software engineer and showed me many jokes or insights about work. At one point I was hunting for a job and TikTok started showing me interview tips. I witnessed drawings and paintings and animations by countless visual artists. I found myself zooming through trippy 3D fractals while listening to Alan Watts. Instead of watching videos with thousands or millions of views, I was seeing videos with a hundred views or even ten views. The algorithm seemed to be trusting me to deliver an early vote. Contributing the millionth view to a video felt inconsequential and anonymous, but being the eleventh viewer seemed intensely personal. I frequently stumbled on musicians tentatively playing their instruments for the camera; their lighting and audio needed work, their performance was not polished, but I watched as if to say “please keep trying”.
TikTok debuted five years ago, but Mark Zuckerburg, who reigns over both
Facebook and Instagram, has been slow to appreciate the advantage of
TikTok’s approach. In an April 2022 earnings call, he was still marveling
that the industry has shifted towards recommendations by AI algorithms.
However, it’s not surprising that AI is transforming our
social networks, since we see AI performing new and amazing feats almost monthly.
Two recent systems, GPT-3 for language and DALL-E 2 for images,
are capable of creating near human-level content in an automated way.
Once they meet or exceed what humans can do, will we stop creating, will we let the
machines take that over? I don’t think so, I think TikTok shows us humans crave
to create as much as consume, the AIs won’t take over, but they might live in
the spaces in between, powering human-to-human interaction at a scale and
speed we’ve never seen before. When I gaze into TikTok before bed I’m
reminded that we are not done creating, we are not done learning, we are
A sampling of the comments on Hacker News for this post:
- The content I see is funny, creative, unique, genuine, wholesome, and supportive. I feel much better about the next generation after seeing some of what they’ve made on TikTok
- I also love TikTok for the same reason. I trained it to deliver content that aligns with my interests
- There’s an immediacy not really found elsewhere in the modern internet
- Content worthy of consumption on TikTok: musicians, visual artists, comedians and dancers. Book reviews, hints for authors, demonstrations of music theory, memorization tricks, Japanese pitch accent
- Of all the content on social media, I think TikTok is one that feels the best for me
- TikTok is a cancer on the universe
- The most terrible content humanity has ever produced
- I think the saddest thing is how addicted people have become to it. It’s poison
- There is rarely any good content on there, no actual value is really extracted from using TikTok
- First, I don’t want to train a commercial product so that it can make money with me. How crazy is that? I uninstalled the app and won’t touch it again
- I think TikTok is the worst social media platform. It’s extremely easy to waste a large amount of time on it and come away with nothing