I’m not entirely sure how TikTok knows I have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but I do know that I’m not the only one who’s felt deeply known while using the app.
TikTok’s main pull is its “For You” page, or FYP — the first screen you see when you open the app which serves you content curated specifically for you with the help of a mysterious algorithm.
The "for you page" on tiktok be a little too FOR YOU nowadays.— Arif (@a_arif78) August 30, 2020
When TikTok first served me a video about the trials and tribulations of digestive issues, I wondered how it could sense something so personal about me.
It’s not like I was following accounts for people with the same taboo medical problems as me.
Christina Casillo, a fellow TikTok user, found herself in the middle of IBS TikTok right along with me. She said being served the same brand of highly specific content made her feel “incredibly seen.”
“I think I may have just engaged with a couple of creators, and then once I got that swimming pool TikTok, I was like oh, they’ve found ME,” she told In The Know.
It’s not creepy — it’s comforting.
She added that talking about the subject matter has always felt “vaguely taboo,” but since users like her (and me) have encountered this boundary-pushing personal content, she’s noticed people have become “more comfortable” sharing their personal woes on Twitter and Instagram.
Of course, TikTok’s magic doesn’t lie entirely in the way it destigmatizes IBS, although that is a lovely perk. When I asked my Twitter followers if they’ve encountered eerily relatable content, the answer was a resounding yes.
From niche takes on TV shows they watched as children to jokes about antidepressants that they’ve literally made before, it’s clear that the algorithm is incredibly accurate across the board. Scarily accurate, even.
TikTok is owned, for now, by ByteDance — a Chinese social media giant that has come under fire for collecting heaps of user data.
President Trump signed an executive order on August 6 that would effectively ban the app from the United States unless ByteDance sold it by September 20, citing national security concerns over data collection. Essentially, government officials are worried about what a Chinese tech company could want with the data of the 100 million Americans who have the app downloaded.
Though TikTok claims that its data collection is on par with what is harvested by American-owned tech companies like Google and Facebook, people are still wary of its true intentions, partially because the FYP algorithm is so undeniably good. That’s what’s so captivating and addictive about the app in the first place.
How the TikTok algorithm works
In June 2020, TikTok revealed some of the basics behind its infamous video recommendation system.
The FYP recommends content by ranking videos based on a combination of factors, which fall into three main categories: user interactions, video information and device and account settings.
User interactions are the videos you like and share, the accounts you follow, the comments you post and the content you create yourself. Video information can include details like captions, sounds and hashtags you interact with. Settings on your phone and your account, like your language preference, country setting and device type, are included to make sure the system is “optimized for performance.”
Each of these factors is then assigned a weight, based on their value to the interest. According to TikTok, a strong indicator of interest would be whether a user finishes watching a video. A weaker indicator is whether the video’s creator is in the same country as the consumer.
Though each video is likely to receive more views if it is shared by a creator with more followers, those are not direct factors in the recommendation system. A first-time poster could be recommended to you with no likes and no hashtags, simply based on your seconds-long interaction with something else.
This also gives smaller creators a chance to shine in the way that Twitter and Instagram usually does not.
Additionally, TikTok visually scans content to look for things that violate its rules, like nudity — but the algorithm does not take into account production value, lighting or the physical appearance of people featured in the videos.
With all this in mind, it’s still mysterious to me that I ended up on IBS TikTok without seeking it out. The algorithm is more in touch with my subconscious than I am.
The feeling of being “chosen” to see videos based on the reactions you have to content you don’t even think about is unrivaled by any other social media.
How to tame your own ‘For You’ page
With that in mind, my FYP is extremely cozy to me. I feel known even beyond the slightly intrusive medical diagnoses they’ve uncovered. I’m often served videos about early 2000s emo music, outfits for mid-sized women and stories about being “the anxious friend” — all things that are central to my identity.
If you’d like to curate your own beautiful utopia of highly personalized content like I have, TikTok has a few official recommendations for you:
When signing up, select categories that interest you. If you skip this step, you’ll be served popular videos until the algorithm gets a good sense of your preferences.
Use the app A LOT. The more you use it, the more accurate it gets.
Checkout popular creators and trending topics within the Discover tab to “invite” new content into your feed.
If you see a video you don’t care about (or actively hate), long-press on the video and tap “not interested.” You can also hide creators this way.
TikTok recognizes that this can create a “filter bubble” based on your preferences which may limit your experience when it comes to finding something new. They said “this is a concern we take seriously” within the system, but didn’t provide an immediate fix.
To avoid the filter bubble, I created two separate TikTok accounts. It actually isn’t that much of a hassle because it’s easy to flip between profiles.
On one, I see a lot of viral dances and popular creators — a phenomenon known to users as “straight TikTok.” On the other, I’m constantly served inexplicable videos of frogs, beans and former “Hannah Montana” star Jason Earles. That’s “elite TikTok.”
Though Twitter, Instagram and Facebook all have their own algorithms, none require the same level of “taming” as the TikTok FYP.
It is addicting to personalize your feed — and absolutely delightful to feel so known once you have.
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If you enjoyed this story, you might also like reading about how TikTok became 2020’s most important musical platform.
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