In less than five years, the social networking app TikTok has turned into the most used platform in the digital world. In the first half of 2018 alone, the same year it ditched its previous name, Musical.ly, TikTok was downloaded more than 104 million times on Apple’s app store–surpassing Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
According to data released by the Chinese-owned company, its one billion users worldwide, 100 million of which live in the United States, spend an average of an hour and 25 minutes on the app a day. The average user opens the app at least 17 times a day.
In 2020, the app was involved in a lawsuit titled TikTok v. Trump in which it sought to evade then President Trump’s threat of banning the platform from American audiences.
The cloud of controversy that surrounds the app calls for a thorough analysis of what in the TikTok formula has turned it into such a smashing global success.
The app’s popularity then can be attributed to two things, its design and algorithm.
When users first open the app, they are immediately presented with what is called a “For You” landing page already playing a hand-picked video. This means that users, especially ones new to the app, don’t have to spend time figuring out how to use the app, searching for who to follow or even polishing up their profile. Before you know it, you’ve been sucked into it too.
Don’t like the video they chose for you? Swipe up to watch a new one, then another and another.
The phenomenon of being unable to stop watching these videos has been dubbed ‘TikTok brain’.
PCC student Christina Rascon, however, attempts to balance her use of TikTok with her academic responsibilities.
“I’m pretty good at setting time aside for studying but every so often I do goof off,” Rascon said. “It’s not like a major distraction, but yes, it’s easy to keep scrolling and then you kind of get sucked into this hole and next thing you know an hour or two has passed by.”
It’s this basic design paired with the fact that its algorithm takes note of what you like, comment on and how long you watch a video to present you with a feed increasingly specific and tailored to even the most niche interests.
In fact, the TikTok algorithm is so good that many users don’t even bother to follow others to keep up with them anymore. Many popular videos are littered with comments like, “trusting the TikTok algorithm to bring me back when the new video is posted!”
For certain students, avoiding these distractions means limiting their screen time at school.
“I don’t allow myself to get on TikTok at school anymore,” student Arnold Lazo said. “The most I let myself do is listen to music or a quick video but I save TikTok until I’m at home.”
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