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TikTok can feel, to an American audience, a little just like a greatest hits compilation, featuring only the most engaging elements and experiences of the predecessors. This is true, to a point. But TikTok – known as Douyin in China, where its parent company is based – also must be understood as one of the very well-known of several short-video-sharing apps in that country. This is a landscape that evolved both alongside and at arm’s length from the American tech industry – Instagram, for example, is banned in China.

Underneath the hood, TikTok is a fundamentally different app than American users have used before. It might feel and look like its friend-feed-centric peers, and you may follow and become followed; needless to say you can find hugely popular “stars,” many cultivated through the company itself. There’s messaging. Users can and do use it like any other social app. But the various aesthetic and functional similarities to Vine or Snapchat or Instagram belie a core difference: TikTok is more machine than man. This way, it’s through the future – or at least a potential. And contains some messages for us.

Think about the trajectory of what we think of because the major social apps.

Twitter became popular as a tool for following people and being accompanied by other individuals and expanded after that. Twitter watched what its users did using its original concept and formalized the conversational behaviors they invented. (See: Retweets. See again: hashtags.) Only then, and after going public, did it start to become more assertive. It made more recommendations. It started reordering users’ feeds according to what it thought they may want to see, or could have missed. Opaque machine intelligence encroached in the original system.

Something similar happened at Instagram, where algorithmic recommendation has become an extremely noticeable area of the experience, and also on YouTube, where recommendations shuttle one across the platform in new and quite often … let’s say surprising ways. Quite a few users might feel affronted by these assertive new automatic features, which are clearly made to increase interaction. One might reasonably worry this trend serves the lowest demands of the brutal attention economy that is certainly revealing tech companies as cynical time-mongers and turning us into mindless drones.

These changes also have tended to operate, at least on those terms. We often do hang out with the apps as they’ve become a little more assertive, and fewer intimately human, even while we’ve complained.

What’s both crucial and simple to miss about TikTok is how it offers stepped on the midpoint involving the familiar self-directed feed plus an experience based first on algorithmic observation and inference. The obvious clue is there whenever you open the app: one thing you see isn’t a feed of your friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed according to videos you’ve interacted with, or perhaps just watched. It never finishes of material. It is not, unless you train that it is, filled with people you know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you need to see. It’s filled with things which you appear to have demonstrated you would like to watch, no matter what you really say you want to watch.

It is actually constantly learning from you and, with time, builds a presumably complex but opaque model of everything you tend to watch, and will show you even more of that, or such things as that, or things associated with that, or, honestly, who knows, however it appears to work. TikTok starts making assumptions the next you’ve opened the app, before you’ve really given it anything to work alongside. Imagine an Instagram centered entirely around its “Explore” tab, or even a Twitter built around, I guess, trending topics or viral tweets, with “following” bolted to the side.

Imagine a version of Facebook that could fill your feed before you’d friended a single person. That’s TikTok.

Its mode of creation is unusual, too. You could make stuff for the friends, or perhaps in reply to your mates, sure. But users looking for something to publish about are immediately recruited into group challenges, or hashtags, or shown popular songs. The bar is low. The stakes are low. Large audiences feel within easy reach, and smaller ones are easy to find, even though you’re just messing around.

Of all social networks the first step to showing your content to a lot of people is grinding to construct a crowd, or having a lot of friends, or being incredibly beautiful or wealthy or idle and prepared to display that, or getting lucky or striking viral gold. TikTok instead encourages users to jump from audience to audience, trend to trend, creating something similar to rqljhs temporary friend groups, who meet up to perform friend-group things: to talk about an inside joke; to riff on a song; to speak idly and aimlessly about whatever is before you. Feedback is instant and frequently abundant; virality features a stiff tailwind. Stimulation is constant. It comes with an unmistakable sense that you’re using something that’s expanding in each and every direction. The pool of content articles are enormous. Almost all of it is meaningless. Some of it might be popular, and a few is excellent, and some reaches be both. Since The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz put it, “Watching too many consecutively can seem to be like you’re about to get a brain freeze. They’re incredibly addictive.”