Written by Audrey Orenstein
Art by Greta Scheff
As a general rule, I try not to form any hard opinions on media until I feel fully qualified to do so. While I’ve gotten pretty good at guessing what I may or may not like, I never know for sure and don’t pretend to. However, this self-imposed restriction of mine has plenty of flexibility. In a lot of scenarios, I have strong feelings about the impact something may have; which makes me biased either toward or against it as a whole. I make an effort to keep the two separate, but I’m not perfect. This brings me to my hardest exception of this:
I have an immeasurable disdain for TikTok, despite having never downloaded it before.
This is not to say that I have no knowledge of the platform. In fact, I’d say I know quite a bit. I’ve read news articles and the likes about the awful trends and negative mental health effects. In regards to the latter, I have some experience. My boyfriend used to spend hours mindlessly scrolling through the app every day. When I told him how worried this made me, he agreed with what I was saying and now limits himself to 2 hours a day. While I’m singling him out here as a personal anecdote, he’s statistically not alone. Even with all that aside, I still dislike TikTok strongly on principle. I prefer consuming and creating well-crafted, long-term content. From watching over my boyfriend’s shoulder, I’ve seen an intense focus on the exact opposite: minuscule bites of entertainment with no connection to one another, designed to be scrolled through without a care in the world. However, I’ve only ever seen his feed based on his algorithm. Thinking about that algorithm gave me an idea.
I want to see what TikTok can offer me. While I don’t believe my preexisting opinion is necessarily invalid, I still feel as though I haven’t given it the fairest shot I can. With that in mind, I’ve laid out a sort of experiment: for the next week, I will sincerely engage with TikTok for 2 hours a day. At the end of each day, I’ll note how the algorithm is or isn’t reacting to me and my tastes, along with my thoughts in general. At the end of the week, I’ll reflect on my “investigation” as a whole.
47 Favorited Videos
Well, that was terrifying. Simply put, those first 2 hours defied my expectations, for better or worse. I’ll be honest, I had more fun than I was expecting, but I don’t consider that to be a good thing. Remember me wondering how long the algorithm would take to really get me? Yeah, it figured me out in less than an hour: Vintage things, ADHD, weird science, nifty animations, and a whole bunch of other kinds of videos that I’m reluctant to admit I enjoyed watching. However, there’s a catch. While I had a good time watching these videos, the way they were presented to me was deeply troubling. You might notice that I favorited 47 videos today. Most of those were at the beginning. After a while, I realized that TikTok doesn’t really want you to save, remember, or dwell on anything specific that you see. This is what I found to be the most insidious aspect of the whole thing. I kept to my 2-hour limit, but I realized afterward that I could have watched forever. The videos aren’t connected. There’s no beginning and no end, just an infinite middle. That genuinely scares me, both in the here and now and for the 6 days ahead.
15 Favorited Videos
I figured that I would be favoriting more and more videos every day as the algorithm got to know me better. As it turns out, the exact opposite is true. I’m really not used to how liking and favoriting videos means something completely different on TikTok as opposed to YouTube. On YouTube, I like videos I like and might want to see again and favorite videos I love and will definitely want to see again. On TikTok, I like videos to influence the algorithm and favorite videos I might want to see again. As I mentioned yesterday, that lack of permanence really unsettles me. Going back through my favorites, I realized that I had basically no memory of any other specific videos. I know I enjoyed them since I would’ve skipped and likely remembered something I didn’t, but no more specific memories exist. Relatedly, logging off felt weird in a scary way. Reflecting on it, I’ve figured out why. 4 hours in, I think I’m settling into a rhythm with TikTok, one I can’t explain. When I saw the timer running out, I was watching a longer video. I thought, “should I skip this to see more in my remaining seconds?” Functionally, I was choosing between watching one video I wouldn’t remember or several more videos I wouldn’t remember. That evidently meaningless choice troubles me.
12 Favorited Videos
Alright, TikTok seems to have decided that I like longer videos, which I do. The majority of the videos I watched were either historical or scientific. There were some animations and jokey-jokes sprinkled in, but it was mostly videos that were well over a minute long. Like many aspects of this app, I think this is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I’m enjoying the content. The algorithm seems to have found a nice niche for me. On the other hand, it negatively affects the math.
Apologies in advance if this gets complicated. You see, another reason Day 1 had so many more favorited videos is because the videos were shorter on average, increasing the odds I’d run into something worth favoriting. As the videos get longer, however, the odds of me favoriting a video remains the same. Counterintuitively, I’m watching and remembering less as the algorithm figures me out more. 2 days ago, I found 47 different videos worth remembering in 2 hours. This time around, I found a quarter as many. Is it quality over quantity? I don’t know. The short videos are entertaining, the long videos are interesting. Am I happier when I’m laughing or when I’m thinking? It’s hard to say. Maybe I’ll decide over the next 4 days. Maybe the algorithm will decide for me.
8 Favorited Videos
This was the worst day so far. I got TikTok into a rut. Basically, despite realizing how the liking system differed from YouTube’s on Day 2, I still haven’t applied that knowledge. This culminated in me initially liking and liking a video of interesting historical pictures. After a bit, it gave me another one, which I also like-liked. Before long, most of the videos I was watching were just this over and over. For additional context, I was drifting in and out of sleep for all of this. By no means do I blame TikTok for my abhorrent sleep schedule. However, this unfortunate modifier did bring something unnerving to light. I would swipe through those photo albums while not processing what I was looking at. However, with the exception of things I favorited or screenshotted, I also don’t remember anything I was awake for. Could this be largely attributed to my borderline zombie state? Maybe, but it’s still sad to know that I could’ve just slept and gained more. The only thing I remember was bad. One of the pictures was of the original Ronald McDonald and it said it was from 1938. I actually already knew that he was created in 1963. As if things weren’t bad enough, one of the few flavors of content I enjoy is prone to just being wrong. Fantastic.
22 Favorited Videos
I’m walking away from today’s two hours feeling largely more positive than I did after yesterday’s two hours, but knowing it was actually worse. I guess the main reason I’m feeling so good is that during the last half hour or so, TikTok decided it was comedy time and made me laugh quite a bit with a bunch of stupid, short videos. This is also why there’s more favorited videos today, since I both wanted to see them again and wanted to show them to my boyfriend. However, there are several reasons why I know today wasn’t good. Firstly, in regards to said boyfriend, he mentioned that he had already seen many of them. This was really annoying. It’s not that I mind having things in common with my boyfriend, quite the opposite. It just felt like the videos then weren’t as individualized, which felt strange. Secondly, I noticed that some of the videos I was getting were just text posts from Tumblr and Reddit. It was a sort of reminder of how much fun those other apps can be, making TikTok look slightly worse. Finally, today was the day that I started getting repeats of videos I had seen in days past. This was both irritating and concerning, since it sets a worrying precedent for the days to come.
21 Favorited Videos
This may not surprise you to hear at this point, but today was a new low. I usually don’t go into specific posts, but I think today deserves it. The first video I was shown told me that I was cursed. Following that was a full hour of unfunny comedy with literally one or two serious/interesting videos I liked. Shout out TikTok for thinking that I, a Jew, should see the one that gave “pizza” a thumbs-up and “the Holocaust” a thumbs-down. I don’t think I liked more than 10 videos that whole time as I looked for something to influence the algorithm by liking. The following hour was still comedy, but good comedy. Also, it somehow found out who my boyfriend was, so I followed him to be polite. This ended up being a mistake. I liked his videos out of common courtesy, but his videos weren’t really my kind of content. Unfortunately, I once again forgot what liking a video tells the algorithm, so I got stuck in a cutesy rabbit hole for a little while. Regardless, I continue to be baffled by TikTok and how it perceives me. It’s weird that things have only gone downhill between this app and I since this started. Will tomorrow be the highest note, the lowest note, or somewhere in between? Let’s find out.
33 Favorited Videos
I hate to say it, but those two hours represented the highest note of the week, excluding Day 1. The reason I hate saying that so much is that it was all comedy. That’s right: I didn’t like, favorite, or even remember anything interesting or educational. I suppose I could’ve strategically avoided liking funny videos to try and get something better, but I saw no reason to gamble when I know how bad things can get. Given that I’ve so far upheld my unspoken promise to not engage with TikTok after the experiment’s conclusion, there was a weird vibe hanging over this last session. I was really kind of hoping it would go back to how it was for today, but it didn’t. Still, all that aside, it was good to laugh. I feel like the algorithm put me in a place it was more comfortable to deliver in. I get the sense that there are far more funny videos than informative ones on the platform, so the fact that it got around to making that work isn’t too surprising. With that said, however, it did feel somewhat impersonal in a way I wasn’t expecting. It all felt a little anticlimactic, for a reason I’ll get to right now in my final thoughts.
Counter to what I was expecting, this past week has made my feelings towards TikTok a lot more complicated and a lot less concrete. Before I started this, all I knew of the platform was through thoughts and experiences that weren’t my own. As of that, it was really easy for me to dislike it purely because of how it was affecting others, which isn’t necessarily unfair. But throwing myself into the ring muddied that. What I’m about to say might sound really weird, but stick with me.
Through the experiment, there was a large part of me that couldn’t help but personify TikTok. More than that, I had an unsettling amount of subconscious ease making its algorithm and presentation seem like a boyfriend. I know, I know, hear me out. Before this, I had seen and read about the effect “he” had on people besides me. I disliked “him” for that reason alone. However, when I talked to people about writing this piece and they mentioned the algorithm, it felt weird to speak negatively on something that hadn’t gotten a chance to suit my tastes. So I gave “him” a try. Sure enough, throughout the week, “his” batting average was surprisingly high. “He” was a different person when “he” talked to me as opposed to my real boyfriend. I’m not so lost in the metaphor that I’d say “he” made me feel special or something like that, but “he” did a very good job of showing me what it was that was so special about “him” that everyone else had already seen.
I knew going into this that TikTok was designed to be addictive. On Day 1, I pointed this out after I found out firsthand how true it was. But now, this fact occupies a far scary place in my brain. This whole week, I had a 2 hour timer for every day. “He” doesn’t want that. “He” wanted me to keep watching until something stopped me, because there is no natural stopping point. If I ever went back to “him,” why would I institute a time limit? It wouldn’t be for the sake of research, just entertainment. “His” fun little videos were so often more entertaining than any longer YouTube video I could choose for myself, so why not keep going?
The answer is that there isn’t one. And that’s exactly why I’m dumping “him” despite how good “he” is at making me happy. “He’s” too good at it, impersonally perfect while trying to appeal to me personally. I don’t like how fun it is to spend time with “him.” I hate how stopping myself feels like something neither of “us” want. There’s always something new, always something I’ve never seen before and never will again. It feels so all or nothing. I just can’t give it all to “him.” I have no choice but to give “him” nothing.
It was fun, TikTok, it really was. But I was right about you.