exposure to newness, TikTok recommendations and identity
what if you enjoy all the things you say you don't like, then what do we do?
When I left Stockholm for London three years ago, I wasn't sure why I wanted to leave my fun job in VC and good quality of life. I had spent the past year traveling alone in South America and living on a horse farm in Australia, so the idea of being alone in a foreign context didn't scare me. But I wasn't sure why I was going. I didn't have a specific pull to London. In fact, the times I had been before, I actively disliked it. I was ambivalent. There was no cool story. I felt like I needed one, so I constructed narratives for myself.
The truth is, the only driving force was the desire for a more natural exposure to newness. I was sick of putting so much effort into creating newness in my life in Sweden. I knew from traveling I could discover new parts of myself by changing my environment, and I wanted more of it without trying so hard. I didn't mind putting myself out there, but if I were the one actively creating new experiences for myself, by design, these would be influenced by my ego and self-constructed identity.
I just wanted someone else to choose for me.
And so came TikTok, with a boom. I believe the idea of choosing content for its users is one of the app's main success factors.
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Sam Lessin wrote about how TikTok exposes users to content to understand what they like instead of users actively creating data by, for instance, following accounts or liking posts. It's widely known that self-reported data is never that reliable. We see this everywhere; from self-reported health data to product preferences and willingness to pay, and the list goes on. All kinds of things go into this complex methodology, from bias and incentives to subjectivity and understanding what the benchmark is and feels like, to knowing who we are versus who we say we are. Regardless, Sam's post highlights one of my favorite things about TikTok: how it constantly exposes people to newness. We are still talking about mindless scrolling here, but the argument still holds. People discover new things on TikTok, and in some form or another, they will also untap new parts of themselves if they choose to. The question is, do we like reality? Do we accept it?
Many people watch different things than what they initially said they wanted to see when they sign up. This happens because users don’t know what content in the different categories look like, so they rely on their own existing interests and what they know. At the sign-up stage, TikTok asks users what interests they have, and while this looks like a simple question to gather seemingly objective data, it's far from it. TikTok isn't asking an objective question about what kind of content should be pushed to this user, no, the question is much bigger than that because it is inherently emotional. What icons and interests the user decides to click is all about how they perceive themselves and what interests belong to their identity. Most of us don't know who we are or what we like. I am not denying people have interests and things they genuinely like, but I think we overestimate some of our identity traits’ importance in many situations.
There are many success stories about users discovering new interests on the app that are inherently positive. An excellent example of that is the rise of booktok and the number of young users who have reportedly started reading thanks to TikTok. While many positive stories resulted from exposing users to newness and different types of content, I also learned some less positive things while working in the policy team there. For me, it became evident that many things we were trying to fix and solve, i.e., the problematic things, are the things people actually like? Everyone said they cared about X, but why are so few opting out of feature Y? People like the wrong things! Even though they said they didn’t!
We are drawn to sensational headlines, to clickbait, to fake news, to things that are too good to be true, we are seeking things to capture our attention, we are seeking things that can temporarily place us in new worlds, take me there! We are choosing all those things that create problems. We want to know how to make 1 million dollars in two months, we know it can't be true, but we watch it because we really want it to be true!
Through TikTok, I fell in love with science experiments, but I also learned that I love watching videos I would intellectually and externally label as dumb. Aoch.
We like TikTok because we feel less pigeon-holed and it recognises that we are more than our self-reported interests. Exposure to newness enables people to tap into new parts of themselves and discover new interests, but we also learn that many of us just like the wrong things. Should we shield people from these things? Are we accepting and open towards the idea that we like them? If the wrong things are what we want, platforms will enable and push the very things we are trying to fix and avoid. Suddenly, we are stuck in this ironic loop and everything is messy.
Do you know what you like?
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