How TikTok’s algorithm pushed boundaries of mainstream content

Anuradha Ganapathy | Updated on August 14, 2020

TikTok captured a segment of India that was hitherto untouched by social media with its algorithms creating a pathway for content that would otherwise have remained on the fringe

In the grand scheme of things, one can argue that TikTok was just another app that was using our data in a mysterious way, for purposes that we may never fully know. And very soon, it is likely to be replaced by another app that will continue to use our data in mysterious ways, again for purposes that we may never fully know.

While the latter may be an eventuality — if not a certainty — in the tech circles, TikTok is not just another app. Instead, it is recognised as the first mainstream consumer app where artificial intelligence is the product, and its widespread appeal and massive user base is a direct result of its AI-powered algorithm.

Automatic content access

There are a few things that stand out about TikTok’s algorithm. First, it deliberately shows you videos that may not necessarily align with your interests — TikTok claims this is a way of breaking repetitive pattern and diversifying content, presumably to avoid the trap of falling into an echo chamber. Second, unlike Instagram, Facebook or Youtube, which use algorithms to “recommend” content to you, TikTok’s algorithms directly “play” content on your feed in the “For you” section that appears on your screen as soon as you open the app. Tech writer Rob Horning explains this in his newsletter: “The app is designed to eliminate the idea of browsing for content and instead showers content on you in a frictionless flow. You don’t have to follow anybody; you don’t have to search for anything. The app just immediately begins to profile you, automating the process of becoming somebody on the platform.”

The end-result of such an algorithm is that users end up viewing content that they would not consciously seek out on their own, thus enabling access to more radicalised and diverse content. Therefore, in essence, if TikTok has captured a segment of India that was hitherto untouched by social media, it is primarily because its algorithms have created a pathway for content that would otherwise have remained on the fringe, to enter the mainstream.

Socio-cultural changes

In India, the arrival of TikTok coincided with the entry of the Jio mobile and hugely subsidised 4G data costs – so what you have is, to borrow from Star Trek, an app that has “gone where no other app has gone before” – to India’s Tier-II and -III cities and towns. While the ethics of this form of mental tyranny are the matter of an entirely different debate, the socio-cultural spin-offs of such an algorithm are worth examining.

First, the relatively diminished role of agency in the TikTok algorithm means that users need not rely on any prior cultural capital they may have accumulated in order to view or create content on the platform. Facebook, Youtube and Instagram, on the other hand, have demanded varying degrees of such capital in the form of English language fluency, specific artistic skills, or subject matter expertise as pre-requisites, which users have subsequently used to build and expand their follower base. Tik Tok, as Horning puts it, “is not interested in who you think you are or what you think you want” — so arguably, those who spew hate on the app by calling it silly and cringe-worthy may actually be pointing to the success of algorithm.

Second, the nearly low or non-existent entry barriers to content creation led to TikTok constituting an “everydayness” of life in a way its more manufactured counterpart, Instagram, could not — whether it was in the careless dancing while tending to your herd, the rehearsed lip syncing while lying down on your unmade bed, or the rhythmic moves in the backyard of your home, all of which could simultaneously co-exist with your day job as an engineer, make-up artist, security guard, beauty parlour assistant or office manager.

Historian David Arnold used the term “everyday technologies” to describe small inventions such as the bicycle, sewing machine and the typewriter, that radically transformed key aspects of India’s colonial life and became cultural iconographs in India’s tryst with technological modernity. Describing how Indians moved the typewriter out of the office to the street, he writes “Observing pavement-typists today, one gets a sense of the way in which the typewriter and other machines that functioned on the margins of the Indian street served as the site for a new sociability, as the typist, the cycle repairman, the tailor or the rice mill operator chats with his customers or fills idle time gossiping, smoking, and drinking tea.”

In a related way, Indian TikTok users have appropriated the everydayness of the platform presented to them through the low entry barriers in a way that may have actually shifted the Overton Window of their aspiration. Metros in India now have TikTok lanes — famous spots where “TikTokers” from the outskirts of the city congregate on weekends to shoot videos and claim their share of fame; contemporary fiction represents TikTok as a site of hope and dreams, a window to an alternate life.

And finally, by stacking an algorithm to deliberately push the boundaries of content, TikTok has engineered the reverse of the Moses parkway effect, ie, made its platform more accessible, more penetrative, and harder to stay away from. In a sense, the blurring of boundaries between the mainstream and the fringe creates a tension between inclusion and exclusion in the offline world, becoming an important point in the discourse of technology and social change — if technology can provide the social capital that has been traditionally distributed through the hierarchical and linear structures of state institutions and civic society, how can these now come together to create new narratives for identity, empowerment and social mobility for the youth of India?

The writer is a former HR professional who has worked in the IT and financial services space

Published on August 14, 2020

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