Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, TikTok has become one of the fastest growing social media platforms in the world. With a surge of over 180 million monthly active users across the globe between December 2019 and July 2020, the platform has quickly become a hotbed for political activism, particularly amongst its large Gen Z audience. Yet, there’s something about the platform that still seems a little more complex and unusual than other social media sites – the algorithm.
Algorithms certainly aren’t something new to social media, but on TikTok, the algorithm is just a little more, well, obvious. I’ll just be going about my day and having a quick look on TikTok, and then suddenly I see a video of some guy I don’t know from California who knows precisely how many pens I have on my desk, the colour of my walls, the number of lights I have on in my room and how many half-finished boxes of cereal I have in the cupboard. Okay, not exactly, but you get the gist. There are a certain number of TikToks that are incredibly hyper specific to you, and seemingly from people you don’t really have much in common with (like a random guy in California), and it’s a little unnerving. But don’t worry, it’s probably because you both like a lot of frog videos, you both cry to Phoebe Bridgers and Mitski most nights of the week, and you both liked the same video of a really specific tarot card reading. If that made no sense, let me explain. Each video shown on your For You Page (your feed, to those unfamiliar with the site) is influenced by each video you have interacted with on TikTok right from when you first downloaded it. This includes hashtags, sounds, country settings, how long you watch videos, and more.
We all know how easy it is to get lost in TikTok’s endless stream of short videos, meaning we go through content incredibly quickly and land within hyper specific realm of individuals whose algorithms have also led them to the same videos. Of course, this can be incredibly positive, helping people to build connections within communities of people who have similar interests to them, making way for self-expression and self-discovery by encouraging people to post amongst groups of people they feel familiar with. Over lockdown, the 15 second videos became a window to the outside world, an outlet to express who you are and the growth you’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic. Whether this was through starting a business, cutting your own mullet (hot girl shit), putting on your roller skates in your upcycled Y2K clothes, having a ghost bedsheet photoshoot to show everyone that you’re the main character, or even creating an entire Ratatouille musical, Tik Tok’s authentic and unfiltered nature allowed anyone and everyone to participate in trends throughout lockdown.
However, such authenticity also leaves space for the political, which is where the platform starts to become divisive. There’s no doubt that over the past year, TikTok has become an instrumental platform for political activism. It became a huge platform for the Black Lives Matter movement over the Summer, amplifying footage of police brutality and protests, and delivering education on the topic. Currently, in the UK, we’re seeing videos circulating with links to petitions to protect the right to peacefully protest, which followed the murder of Sarah Everard early this March. Globally, TikTok creators are currently amplifying stories of racism faced by Asian people, alongside the #StopAsianHate, which is circulating across most large social media platforms following the murders of six Asian women in a mass shooting in Atlanta on the 16th of March.
With the use of algorithms on TikTok, such content is able to reach its target audience quickly, and the more engagement the video receives, the more people it reaches, and the more awareness it creates. Thus, it’s incredibly easy to make a positive difference to your community by using this platform, and perhaps this is why we, as Gen Z, seem to believe we’re changing the world, one TikTok at a time. But sadly, this idea could be a result of the algorithm too. Because political dialogue is personal and young people tend to express their social identities (ethnicity, sexuality, locality etc.) in direct relation to their political views, people with similar political views often end up watching the same videos. We’ve become so pre-disposed to seeing people with the same interests to us on our For You Page, that we’ve become out of touch with how diverse the platform is, and how diverse the world is.
There is also a danger that young people, particularly those under 13, may accidentally fall into a heavily politicised side of TikTok. Without their social media usage being constantly monitored by adults, young people can easily fall susceptible to political and ideological views and messages posed in videos. Given the increased screen time of young people over lockdown, this has become an even greater concern.
So, I guess this poses the question: is it time to break the algorithm?