Sometimes, while scrolling through TikTok – as I did for a horrifying 17 hours and 53 minutes last week – I’ll have a strange out-of-body experience. I’ll see a video, chuckle, then move on to the next before I realise, “Oh, I really should send that video to Austin.” Only it’s not the last video I’ve watched, it’s suddenly six videos back. Six videos I mindlessly rejected in the time it took me to form a simple, one-sentence thought about sending it to my friend.
None of this is groundbreaking, but it’s evidence of why TikTok prioritises watch time when choosing what videos to show to each user. As a recent internal document leaked to the New York Times explained, what shows up on your “For You Page” is determined by likes, comments, and importantly, how long you watch various clips. This specificity leads users to constantly wonder, “How does TikTok know this about me?” But another part of the leaked document stuck out to me: TikTok also makes sure to show its users a diversity of content so the viewers don’t get bored. This tidbit changed how I thought about the algorithm. Instead of a direct reflection, it’s more of a horoscope.
It’s not that the TikTok algo can predict your future, but it can reveal certain things about your predilections and preferences that perhaps you haven’t fully realised. I often joke that TikTok thinks I’m an Orthodox Jewish mother. I’m neither of those things, but the first video I saw when I opened the app for “research” for this article was a video of a mom re-enacting how she would tell grandma that her child doesn’t need to give her a hug if they don’t want to, so there you go. Although I don’t follow her, @TheRealMelindaStrauss, whose TikTok page descriptor reads “My Orthodox Jewish Life”, is always on my For You Page, sharing what she made for Shabbos this week. What is it about these videos that appeal to me? Her Shabbos meals always look delicious, which is probably why I linger. But also I am nosy and love a voyeuristic glance into someone’s life, particularly if they follow a set of religious rules foreign to me.
By saying that TikTok thinks I’m a Jewish mom, I’m omitting all the specific things my algorithm knows about me that are more obvious: that I love musicals, Taylor Swift, celebrity gossip, ballet, sordid details of dead socialites’ lives, fashion history, basset hounds, and “A Day in the Life” videos from all professions. (Although one thing you won’t find on my FYP is fashion-industry news or analysis. I spend 17 hours and 53 minutes a week on TikTok as a break from my 50-hour-a-week job, thank you very much.) Does it have me coined as a basic bitch? As a kindergarten teacher who moonlights as an astrologer? Or neither, because it’s a machine that’s just picked up on my habits and throws a curveball in here and there?
I asked a few of my colleagues what they thought the algorithm thought of them, and for the most part, they felt uncannily seen by their particular curation. “Okay, literally why does the TikTok algorithm show me lesbian home renovation after every breakup?” culture writer Emma Specter says. “I mean it’s definitely because I only watch gay TikTok, so it’s probably a selection bias where I notice it really being foisted on me at Times of Emotional Strife.” Christian Allaire, who writes our Big On TikTok column, says, “My FYP is fashion, celebrity, gamer, and dog content. Like, relentlessly so. I rarely get deviations.” Is it possible he doesn’t notice the “forced recommendations” (as the leaked document puts it) that deviate from those topics? “I don’t notice if I do get them. I really don’t get things where I’m like, Why is this here?” he says.
A parent I work with, who asked to remain anonymous (I get it, sharing your algorithm publicly is just as bad as sharing your internet history), says her algorithm reveals something about the conflicts and compromises of life as an urban working parent. “I will be sitting in my New York house, in my all-black outfit, about to scowl at some people on the subway on my way to my office job, and my feed will be, like, stay-at-home Mormon moms in Hawaii talking about how they pack their kids’ lunches! How did I get here? Apparently I want to witness the sunny, impossible-to-imitate modes of parenting… to what, exactly? Ogle? Envy? Make fun of? The problem is, TikTok doesn’t know when you’re watching something – ahem – ironically, and when you’re watching it for genuine utility.”
This is what I mean when I say that your TikTok algorithm is a kind of modern palm reading: It’s up for interpretation. It’s vague enough that you can take what most clearly applies to you, what you identify with, what makes you question previously held beliefs, and leave the rest. In fact, what you think your algorithm says about you says more about you than it does about the app.
Take the lack of fashion content on my For You Page, for instance. I could read it as a sign that I don’t like fashion and need to quit my job. Or I could see it as evidence that when I sign onto TikTok, I’m looking for something new and different from what I spend all day thinking about. I have a sense that if I really hated my job, I’d see it one way. But in the meantime, I’ll be watching an ice skater explain how to tell if a frozen lake is sturdy enough to skate on, and I will never use that information in my life.