Dec 10, 2021 7 min read

What Makes TikTok So Addictive?

Wiser! Essay: TikTok is the most addictive platform on Social Media. Leaked documents reveal the how and why.

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BackStory:  The science and purpose behind TikTok's algorithms have been revealed in a leaked document shown to the New York Times.

TikTok now has a billion active users every month and is, IMHO, the most addictive of all the social media platforms. If you've never been on TikTok, it serves up an endless stream of very short videos (max length is 3 mins, but the majority are less than 1 min). The algorithms figure out your preferences within a very short period of time because of the intensity of signals they capture in a concentrated period.

Think of it like this...when you listen to Spotify or watch Netflix, it takes hours of attention before the platform figures out that you like soul or Succession. But with TikTok, it takes 15 to 20 minutes before the app knows your musical, political and sexual tastes, even your state of mind.

The leaked document shown to the NY Times explains how the pursuit of the company’s “ultimate goal” of adding daily active users, it has chosen to optimize for two closely related metrics in the stream of videos it serves: “retention” (whether a user comes back) and “time spent.” The app wants to keep you there as long as possible. The experience is sometimes described as an addiction.

The document says watch time isn’t the only factor TikTok considers. The document offers a rough equation for how videos are scored, in which a prediction driven by machine learning and actual user behaviour are summed up for each of three bits of data: likes, comments and playtime. The document also illustrates in detail how the company tweaks its system to identify and suppress “like bait” (videos designed to game the algorithm by explicitly asking people to like them), and how the company thinks through more nuanced questions.

TakeAway:  TikTok is not like the other social media platforms. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter et al rely on a user's 'connections' or list of 'friends' to serve up content.

But TikTok is different because it does not rely on knowing who your friends in when deciding what content to put in front of you. Instead, the TikTok algorithms figure out exactly what makes you tick. The AI is extremely adept at working out what you really want to see and then feeding it to you. But more than that, the algorithms also recognise that a user can soon get bored with seeing the same stuff. So the algorithms will start to test out related but different content to see if you like that and to keep you interested.

A recent Wall Street Journal report demonstrated how TikTok relies heavily on how much time users spend watching each video to steer them toward more videos that will keep them scrolling. It is this process that causes concern because it can sometimes lead young viewers down dangerous rabbit holes, in particular toward content that promotes suicide or self-harm, problems that TikTok says it’s working to stop by aggressively deleting content that violates its terms of service.

How TikTok Reads Your Mind
It’s the most successful video app in the world. Our columnist has obtained an internal company document that offers a new level of detail about how the algorithm works.
‘I need my girlfriend off TikTok’: How hackers game abuse-reporting systems
TikTokers can flag videos as falling into specific categories of prohibited content — misleading information, hate speech, pornography — and send them to the company for review. This crowdsourcing is an important weapon in TikTok’s content moderation arsenal.
The TikTok Algorithm Knew My Sexuality Better Than I Did
My TikTok feed is a medley of absurd animal videos, spooky happenings that are more than likely hoaxes... and queer femmes.
Inside TikTok’s Algorithm: A WSJ Video Investigation
The Journal created dozens of automated accounts that watched hundreds of thousands of videos to uncover how the social media network knows you so well.

TikTok's recipe for getting you hooked

1. Highly Personalised Feed

All social media platforms have a recommendations or suggestions section where they can nudge you towards content that the algorithms "think" you'll like. On TikTok this is called the "For You" page.

But the reason why TikTok is different is in the way that they personalise the experience for users. Other social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin and Twitter base their recommendations on your friend or follower lists. The people that you know and follow are used to influence the suggested content.

But TikTok don't do this. Instead, they personalise a user's For You page with content that is personalised based the user's tastes. The more a user lingers and watches certain content, the more that TikTok will feed  them with mroe of the same. TikTok's goal is to get the user locked into a loop of continuous scrolling.

2. Immediate content

From the moment the user opens the app, TikTok starts playing a continuous loop of short video clips. There is no login, deciding what to look at first, navigating to a home page...the content is instant and immediate.

3. Videos shown on an endless loop

Most social media platforms let you view a certain post and then scroll further. For example, Netflix offers up a pause before the next episode starts playing automatically. Where TikTok is different is that it uses a smart strategy of looping videos again and again.

Interestingly, in the Chinese version of TikTok (called Douyin), the Government have introduced restrictions as part of its Big Tech Crackdown. One of them is the introduction of mandatory breaks every 5 minutes or so. This means that Douyin must pause the continuous content feed to break the "lock-in" of continuos scrolling.

4. Quick and short content

Tiktok content has a maximum duration of 3 minutes. However the majority of video shorts are less than a minute and mostly run between 15 and 30 seconds. It doesn't sound long, but that is the magic for TikTok. Just like Twitter when it introduced the 140 character tweet, TikTok has made a virtue out of brevity.

The psychology is really smart; the human brain can easily lose track of time. The thought of (only) watching a handful of 15-second videos will seem like it's no time at all when in reality it is very easy to burn 15-20 minutes watching a continuous stream of distracting material.

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"We’re the product. Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers." Justin Rosenstein (The Social Dilemma)

5. Redefining the way we consume music

TikTok has deals with the largest music publishers in the industry. This allows users to add short clips of trending music to their videos, even if the video has nothing to do with the song. This has proven to be a highly effective way for established artists to promote their music. And also opens the door for unknown artists to establish themselves.

The point is that TikTok uses music as a key signal for engagement. Popular tracks are used over and over again and has the same effect as turning the radio up when a favourite song comes on the radio.

This trend of music on TikTik is explained well in this podcast from the team at Morning Brew (sponsors of Wiser!).


TikTok's strategic push into e-commerce

BackStory:  TikTok is moving big time into the influencer led, live shopping sector called Social Commerce. This is already huge in China and is growing rapidly in the West.

Take influencers like 16-year-old Charli d'Amelio and her 123m followers. Her videos have been Liked 9.8 billion times, which means they've been watched many more times than that. TikTok are building a feature so that its users can buy direct from within the app. The latest to take advantage of TikTok's attention-grabbing addiction is the Canadian e-commerce platform Shopify.

Shopify has partnered with TikTok so that merchants can add a shopping tab to their TikTok business profiles. This is the latest example of the Social Commerce segment of e-commerce which is forecast to record $36 billion in sales this year. And account for 5% of retail sales by 2025!

But, even though the numbers are big in the US, they're dwarfed by China where social commerce is already a $352 billion sector. Combining social media influencers with live TV shopping channels, social commerce has exploded in China and offers many lessons for retailers in the West.


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Further reading

Collection of Articles about TikTok
Collection of Insights, Essays and Articles about the technology and outcomes caused by TikTok, the fastest growing & most addictive social media platform.
The Attention Economy: Live shopping on Pinterest TV
Wiser! Essay: Social media’s advertising business model is broken. Influencer led e-commerce is the new black when it comes to monetising your attention.
Social Media Addiction May Increase Suicide Rates Among Adolescents, Experts Say
On an average, a teenager spends around nine hours a day on screen media, according to a report.

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