How TikTok Changed the Social Media Game With Its Unique Algorithm
Here's what makes TikTok's algorithm different from other social media platforms and how the algorithm led to the app's explosive growth.
TikTok is rewriting the rules for how we create, share and discover visual content. The TikTok algorithm, specifically the "For You Page" (FYP) feed, has changed the game for social networks propelling entertainment and discovery to the forefront.
In this article, I'm diving into the rise and fall of social media, what led to TikTok's explosive growth, how the TikTok algorithm is different from other social networks, and how TikTok's success is influencing other platforms.
The rise and fall of social media
As social networks and media platforms evolve, so do our habits and behaviors. Think back to your early social media days. Before the explosive growth of apps like TikTok and Instagram, our social media experiences and the content we consumed were largely dependent on those we chose to "friend" on Facebook (and before that, MySpace).
These connections were bi-directional with both parties accepting the friendship. Initially, this was with classmates and friends. Later, our connections evolved to include extended family (remember the first time you saw Grandma was on Facebook?) and random acquaintances (that friend you met on the bus while traveling abroad). Naturally, we age out of those connections, and eventually, their content no longer feels as relevant or interesting to us.
In search of a more curated experience, we seek out new platforms. For many, this was Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn. The differentiator is the ability to one-way follow. This enabled us to tighten that circle of family and friends to just those whose posts we wanted to see.
Simultaneously, it enabled us to expand our feeds beyond those we know personally to include people and brands we were interested in following — a shift that propelled the rise of influencers, creators and businesses building out their social media presence while fueling our need for more relevant content. However, it wasn't long until many of us found ourselves "doom scrolling" these apps in search of content that could keep up with our changing interests, need for entertainment and short-term attention spans.
Like many others, I found myself spending an excessive amount of time consuming information on my feeds that (again) didn't feel relevant while comparing my life to the social highlight reels of those I follow, all while absorbing negative news and feeling pressure to share and measure social interactions. This leads to an increased social and emotional burden of navigating social media, often leading to the desire to shut off the apps completely and turn to Netflix or YouTube videos for passive entertainment.
What led to TikTok's explosive growth?
Ultimately, social media platforms were built to foster connections, not to discover and explore our interests. The issue is that we, as users, take on the additional burden and effort of trying to personalize our feeds to feel more relevant and interesting to us as individuals by muting or unfollowing, making Twitter lists, searching hashtags, typing subjects into the search bar, etc.
If only there was a platform that personalized our feeds for us without having to lift a finger … and in the blink of an eye, TikTok completely takes the social media world by storm. After years of irrelevant, disconnected news feeds, TikTok has revamped the scrolling experience, enabling discovery and curating interest-based entertainment.
The "For You Page" (FYP) was designed to share content with users based on what the TikTok algorithm has learned to be the most relevant and of the highest interest to them. Within minutes, FYP feeds are personalized to our interests, beliefs, curiosities and passions just by passively watching entertaining short-form videos.
Why is it so addicting? Because it's personalized specifically for YOU. TikTok is about discovery, and the algorithm works like a speedy matchmaker, discovering things for you that you didn't even realize you wanted to see. In 2021, TikTok surpassed Google on Cloudflare's most popular domains.
Related: 3 Reasons TikTok Is Here To Stay
How is the TikTok algorithm different?
Most social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, rely on what is called a "social graph," They intend to connect you within a network of every person you may have any relation to and use this insight to inform advertising. However, these suggestions are under the assumption that we have the same interests and buying behaviors as those we are connected to, which is simply not the case.
TikTok's key differentiator is that the algorithm was built on an "interest graph." It works using your interests and content that you interact with, capturing your likes and dislikes and associating you with other user groups who share those interests.
TikTok does have a social graph aspect with their following feed, but the FYP is what has catapulted user discovery and creator growth. All a user has to do is watch a few videos without adding a single follower, and the TikTok algorithm can quickly curate what you will like.
How does it work? TikTok uses artificial intelligence (AI). It evolves to our changing interests in real-time without us having to do much of the work (removing that burden I mentioned earlier). The algorithm discovers what is interesting to us while we passively scroll. The short-form videos allow for this to happen at lightning speed. This removes the burden of other social apps if you want it to. You can remove the social aspect entirely. Many use TikTok solely as a discovery and entertainment platform.
AI technology is not new. You've seen it before with shopping suggestions on Amazon based on what others with similar tastes have purchased. Amazon isn't built on a social graph, so they use your past behavior and match you with those with similar purchasing behavior.
The difference with TikTok is that it's hyper-personalized, and it's eerily accurate. It's so specific to your personal and professional interests that no two individuals' feeds are the same. Try it yourself — go on a friend's For You Page, and you will see the content they are matched with is entirely different from what you see on yours. At this point, TikTok may even know us better than we know ourselves.
How is TikTok's success influencing other platforms to evolve?
An essential piece to the TikTok algorithm is the focus on personalized short-form video content. This is a fundamental shift in the way people around the world engage and discover online. With short-form videos, the system receives information on our behaviors much quicker with large amounts of data in a short amount of time. They make it fun and easy for users to do the work for them while keeping us entertained along the way.
The use of short-form videos benefits all parties — users, creators and the platform itself. For users, we can consume a high dose of personalized content in a relatively short amount of time. For creators, you can get discovered more quickly while repurposing longer-form content into bite-size pieces. And for the app, short-form videos get the data they need faster, so they can personalize the in-app experience and algorithm more efficiently.
It's no surprise that the global leaders in social media are taking note. TikTok's popularity and the success of the FYP has literally propelled all the other large social platforms to build their own short-form video products (i.e., Pinterest Idea Pins, Youtube Shorts, Instagram Reels, Snapchat Spotlight, etc.) and shift their focus to prioritizing interest graphs over social graphs.
Short-form videos (and specifically, TikTok videos) are essential for any creators' content strategy in 2022 and beyond. Try making your own interest graph for your audience. What might they be searching for? What will make your content relevant to them? As TikTok continues to grow and other platforms follow suit, creators who are leading their niche in short-form video content will increase their discovery and grow their audience.
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