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TECH NOMAD

What makes popular video app TikTok tick?

A logo for the TikTok app, shown in a 2018 file photo.
A logo for the TikTok app, shown in a 2018 file photo. (JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

Open up TikTok — the wildly popular short-video app your kids spend most of their day on — and there’s no telling what you’ll see.

My first tap offered up a clip of construction workers using a forklift to hoist a portajohn containing an indisposed friend. (Ha. Swipe.) Then teen TikTok star Madison Schooley (154,000 followers) practicing dance moves with two of her friends in a carpeted room. (Swipe.) Then I see a girl dancing in the street within a human-size Slinky. (Wow. Swipe.) Then a woman falling on her face after trying to push a glass door that wasn’t there. (Ow. Swipe.) Then a kid creating spectral spirals by pouring paint on a spinning circular canvas. (Ooooh. Replay.)

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This is the “getting to know you” stage of my relationship with TikTok. And in the increasingly human-ish relationship we have with our apps, it’s also the most important.

Originally launched in China as Douyin, TikTok was revamped and relaunched globally in its current form by parent company ByteDance in 2016. The following year, ByteDance acquired the enormously popular lip-syncing video app Musical.ly, and one year after that, Musical.ly was absorbed into TikTok. That lip-sync legacy has stubbornly stuck around as one of the defining social milieu of TikTok — which traffics exclusively in 15-second videos.

But apart from its endless interpretations of Taylor Swift songs, a major reason TikTok has accumulated more than half a billion users worldwide since launching in 2016 is that it operates in a fundamentally different way than most of its social media competitors.

Like Facebook (at first) and Snapchat, it’s a network built on a mix of content from inside and outside of one’s social circles. But while what we might now call “traditional” social media centered your social life and treated the world outside of it as something to be invited in, TikTok — from the moment you tap the app — pushes you out into the world and attempts to guess where you’d want to go.

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Those first five videos I watched (or skipped) were just the starting point for a long, AI-assisted learning process whereby TikTok gradually assembles and caters to an idea of who and what I like to watch. And my next 100 swipes bore this out: When I lingered on a video I saw more like it. When I replayed a video for whatever song it contained, that song reappeared later in the queue. It’s likely that TikTok’s machine learning tracks every aspect of videos you watch — from the filters they’re run through to the stickers and songs that festoon them.

While it’s easy enough to create videos on TikTok, it’s this mutual exchange of consumption and refining of preference that feels like its raison d’etre. (Though documenting poorly executed choreography seems to run a close second.)

Of course, you barely notice this push-and-pull after 10 or so videos. Or 100. Or 1,000. Once it “gets” you, the TikTok experience becomes a friction-free glide into the curated unknown.

And TikTok seems aware of the bottomless hole of content it has coaxed millions of users into, even offering a screen time management setting in its “Digital Wellbeing” menu to nudge you off the app. If keeping up with friends on Facebook ever felt like a mild addiction, TikTok is hoping you’ll be even more interested in strangers.

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“Imagine a version of Facebook that was able to fill your feed before you’d friended a single person,” wrote John Hermann in his primer for The New York Times, “That’s TikTok.”

All of which adds up to a promising solution to the gripes of many disaffected Facebook users, who loathe the daily slog through its endless stream of ads, articles, arguments, and aggrandizement. It also means a major problem for parents already wary of letting their kids onto digital playgrounds.

In India, the app is just coming off a weeklong ban imposed by the government on grounds that the app was "encouraging pornography,” spreading sexual predation, and generally endangering children. (It was also having to actively combat the spread of fake news across the platform in advance of India’s elections.)

And here in the US TikTok agreed back in February to pay $5.7 million in fines to the FTC to settle allegations that it illegally collected information from users under 13 by failing to require parental consent and not complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Since then, there’s been a far more visible push on TikTok to empower users to control content and boost safety.

Shortly after the FTC settlement, it introduced “a limited, separate app experience” for children “that introduces additional safety and privacy protections designed specifically for this audience,” “does not permit the sharing of personal information,” and “puts extensive limitations on content and user interaction.” Two months later it forged a public partnership with Internet Matters, a “not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to empower parents and carers to keep young people safe in the digital world”

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These are important measures, but even as TikTok learns how best to police a userbase that signed up for a free-for-all, it’s important to recognize it as part of a larger turn in social media.

With Facebook launching its own TikTok clone (Lasso), and erstwhile Vine founder Dom Hoffman actively teasing his forthcoming short-video app Byte, we’ll be seeing a lot more of these high-exposure platforms; and by necessity, they’ll be seeing a lot more of us.


Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.