TikTok is winning. Dominating. Conquering.
But what game are they playing?
There’s no doubt that TikTok’s copycat competitors are intimidated by the winner. That’s why Instagram added “Reels” that feel just like TikTok. And YouTube recently added “Shorts” for the same reason.
If two of the biggest Big Tech companies are dancing to TikTok’s beat, you know they’re scared. According to Time magazine, TikTok’s average monthly users grew by 234% in the second quarter of 2022 alone, while YouTube’s only grew 29%. And to Mark Zuckerberg’s chagrin, the average person spends ten minutes watching TikTok for every minute watching Instagram’s Reels.
How TikTok Wins
“What TikTok has done is sort of take YouTube’s recommendation system and Facebook’s feed features that have been criticized for prioritizing engagement and addiction, and ball it all up into a really compelling service,” Bergen says.
How is TikTok conquering? They are composing all the most addictive rhythms — the same exploitation of human behavioral psychology that made Big Tech so big in the first place — adding their own secret desire shaping overtones, and playing them for planet-sized standing ovations.
But what’s the big deal? Companies compete for market share, and the best ones win at the expense of others, right? Capitalism for the win? Anybody using Myspace or AOL anymore?
That’s what entertainment industry insider and popular commentor Bob Lefsetz thinks:
“So TikTok is not static, it’s entertainment. Talk to any of the big TV streamers, they fear TikTok more than each other. TikTok eats up three hours a day of the young ‘uns’ lives. Leaving little time to stream TV. As for network… Do these kids even have cable access?
And TikTok is about something different from Instagram, it’s about ENTERTAINMENT! Seeing what is cool. Sure, there’s a train-wreck factor, but it’s hard to tear yourself away from the endless videos. It’s the hotspot of the internet in 2022 when the entire digital infrastructure is de rigueur, expected, part of the fabric.
The people already voted, they want short-form video a la TikTok.”
It’s “hard to tear yourself away from endless videos.” That’s for sure. It works. That’s why people are “voting” for it. But are they voting intentionally? Or [un]intentionally?
According to Lefsetz, unintentionality is the point of TikTok. That’s why it’s winning. No more agonizing over what to watch on Netflix. Just open TikTok, and find hours of entertainment without a conscious choice. Here’s how Lefsez puts it:
“TikTok is YouTube on steroids. Because there’s no searching! Oh, you can search. But really, you just see what the algorithm delivers and go on your own personal hejira. There are very few tuneouts, and if you hit one and scroll past it, TIKTOK KNOWS!
TikTok is not pressuring you to watch anything. They just want you to watch period. Which means the same people on all the other social media platforms, the “winners,” don’t own all the airtime. They’re competing with the nobodies for views, you can never rest on your laurels, and nobodies can go to the top with a single clip, even their first one!” (emphasis mine)
That’s right: TikTok only wants us to keep watching. It doesn’t matter what. Just. Keep. Watching. And we’re complying with them. Just what they’ve programmed us to do.
Lefsetz’s use of the term “personal hejira” is appropriate: getting lost in TikTok becomes an almost religious pilgrimage — an escape from the real world into one where we get lost because “we” don’t exist anymore: our desires are created by them. And if our desires aren’t ours, who are we?
And guess what? We’re not just watching, we’re shopping on TikTok too — to the tune of $2.3 billion in 2021, a 77% growth rate. In fact, TikTok brags that “67% of users say TikTok inspires them to shop— even when they weren’t planning to do so.”
Not planning to shop, eh? Sounds unintentional to me. The shaping of this desire even has its own hashtag: #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt.
The Wall Street Journal investigated TikTok’s desire-shaping power in a fascinating research article last year. They created over a hundred different automated accounts (a.k.a. bots) with certain specific interests, and trained these bots to follow their interests on TikTok.
WSJ reporters learned that TikTok is amazingly tuned in to every aspect of video watch time. They know how many milliseconds we linger over everything, and whether we quickly swipe to something else or rewatch over and over.
The WSJ interviewed data scientist Guillaume Chaslot of Algotransparency, who is working to reveal how Big Tech algorithms influence us. He says that TikTok’s algorithm, like YouTube’s, “is pushing [the viewer] towards more and more extreme content so it can push them toward more and more watch time.”
The algorithm is able to find the piece of content that you’re vulnerable to, that will make you click, that will make you watch, but it doesn’t mean you really like it. […] It’s just the content that’s most likely to make you stay on the platform. (emphasis mine)
So if you’re feeling sad, you’ll be led down a rabbit hole of depressing content, or if you’re feeling tempted, sexual content is a swipe away.
Because they’ve spent billions of dollars and millions of hours learning how to keep you watching. In Chaslot’s pithy words, “We’re training them, and they’re training us.”
Should We Care About Privacy?
When most articles raise concerns like this about TikTok, it seems like they focus on how TikTok collects vast amounts of data from the (mostly younger) American population. The privacy of our youth is at stake!
And while that may be interesting, it’s a distraction (like TikTok itself). ByteDance (TikTok’s Chinese parent company) doesn’t want to collect all of our data so that it can steal our stuff, like how identity thieves swipe your name and birthday to open a credit card in your name.
No. TikTok collects our data for one purpose: control.
That’s right. They hoard the mountain of data about all of our behaviors just to make sure we’re doing what they want us to do.
Think about it: if all the users of TikTok are being led by TikTok to do what TikTok wants them to do, what is private about their data? What is personal? Nothing! There’s no unique “personal” data because there’s nothing unique about the person behind the data. The only reason to watch everyone’s data is to ensure compliance.
We’re losing our ability to think for ourselves. And if we’re not thinking for ourselves, who are we?
Taking Your Life Back
If you lose yourself in a “hejira” for hours at a time on any social media platform, you’re not living the life God created you to live. If your kids are doing this, they’re losing the chance to learn how to become who God would love for them to be.
But there is hope. Yes, TikTok or other platforms may be more intentional with your time than you are right now. But you can flip that intentionality imbalance. I’d love to help you.
That’s why I wrote [Un]Intentional: How Screens Secretly Shape Your Desires, and How You Can Break Free. The book will walk you through a grace-filled path to freedom so that you can relearn how to think your own thoughts, make better decisions, and fulfill your God-given purpose.
TikTok wins by caring more about how you spend your time than you do. You’re obviously valuable to them.
How much more valuable are you to the God who made you, and loves you?