Allow me to borrow the title I usually reserve to blockchain news to talk about TikTok, the first Chinese social network to truly make it to Western markets (in its 3 years of life it conquered 500 million users worldwide🤳) and very likely to influence radically how digital products are conceived. Indeed, there are two aspects of TikTok that need to be watched close: the central role of AI; the way it is boldly opening a new era of social networks - or maybe we should finally start calling them self-marketing networks.
As I covered in the April’s issue
, TikTok’s artificial intelligence is the product, and not just a tool. There is a variety of theories
(including: “it’s totally random”) about how it works. The feature on which commenters obsess the most is the “for you” page
, which functioning is opaque, and assumes the user can be completely passive:
What’s both crucial and easy to miss about TikTok is how it has stepped over the midpoint between the familiar self-directed feed and an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. (…) The first thing you see isn’t a feed of your friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed based on videos you’ve interacted with, or even just watched. It never runs out of material. It is not, unless you train it to be, full of people you know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you want to see.
The app makes it so easy to digest and produce content that in China it ended up having a massive role in bringing rural communities online
(does it reminds you of Facebook in Africa
?), lowering the barriers to access online content and creating a vast ecosystem of rural video. Reaching out to a large audience is a kind of overnight magic
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have talent, looks or ideas, you could just remake people’s videos (we call it inspired) or duet with them. Everyone has a chance to go viral and become a star overnight”
It would be easy to frame TikTok as an evolution of Western social networks making a very good use of AI. But compared to its predecessor, TikTok is AI-first native: there is not a process over time going from a socially relevant narrative “we connect you to your family and friends” to gluing users to the screen with every possible means. It is all about machine learning directing the experience, with social interactions coming into play as a side effect. TikTok states boldly that a social network function is primarily facilitate self-broadcasting and feed you with endless content, regardless of its quality and veracity.
In a way, TikTok is a much more honest app, making the best of the attention economy strategies. Whether this is clear to users, and to which extent it will increase on the long run phenomena like social isolation and anxiety, will keep us occupied for a while.