TikTok’s Algorithmic Affordances

This paper was originally written for the “Digital Media Studies” course within the Film and Media Studies graduate program at Arizona State University, completed September 8, 2020.

The video-audio sharing mobile app TikTok rose in popularity in the United States shortly before and during the COVID-19 pandemic as a digital disruption in the “canon” of widespread social media platforms. A major reason for TikTok’s success, now threatened by a potential ban by the United States government due to its ownership by Chinese company ByteDance, is its algorithm. While algorithms that tailor content to audiences are prominent on sites and apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, TikTok’s design choices accentuate and indeed rely on algorithmic pipelines even more than the platform’s peers. Through the lens of three of Nancy Baym’s seven key concepts of media evaluation, reach, replicability, and social cues, TikTok can be seen as affording strict feedback loops of sentiments and topics for all of its users.

Affordances, as the representation of the relationship between a user and a form of technology, can vary by the person interacting with said technology. Peter Nagy and Gina Neff take these variables a step further with their concept of “imagined affordances,” affordances imagined by designers and users alike that don’t necessarily match the practical or realistic applications of the technology (1–2). With this idea of imagined affordances, the expectations of TikTok’s designers and users can broadly be described in this way: the app is designed to circulate visual and aural memes, usually in the form of dance and comedy videos, but users can also expect to be able to find a diversity of content through TikTok’s algorithm-based “For You” page.

As far as social media platforms go, TikTok’s content consumption interface is relatively minimal. When one opens the app, they see two options for content feeds: the aforementioned “For You” page, which provides an endless stream of content shaped by the user’s viewing and creation habits, and the “Following” page, which provides a familiar, semi-chronological feed of videos from accounts a user elects to follow. A search function can point to users, “sounds” that form the basis of TikTok’s combination of aural and visual virulence, and hashtags. The last is often used to “game” the algorithm system, with creators using promoted hashtags and the ubiquitous “#fyp” or “#foryoupage” to ostensibly end up in front of more eyes.

An inbox provides notifications and messages; friends can send TikToks through this functionality. A “Me” tab allows for the editing of a user’s profile and management of their TikToks. And finally, a prominent “+” button in the middle of these options (running along the bottom of the screen) allows the creation of TikToks. Although TikTok markets its creation tools as simple and easy to use, the word-of-mouth approaches to various means of video editing and meme formats goes beyond the selection of an audio and shooting video in-app. Many take to editing their video outside of TikTok, and uploading the finished product to the platform.

TikTok’s creation tools are emblematic of the three aforementioned concepts by Baym. TikTok is seen as a tool for increased reach beyond the saturated “marketplaces of ideas” of the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Although those platforms emerged as places for anyone to share ideas, increased corporatization started to shift content creation to higher production values and more popular voices. And while TikTok is now on the path to that dynamic, the leveling effect of the ever-present algorithm attracts many hoping to be picked up by its whims. It’s a further twist on the “powerful subversion of the elitism of mass media, within which a very small number of broadcasters could engage in one-to-many communication” (Baym 14).

Small content creators are perceived as valuable contributors once again, and the replicability (another Baym concept) of their content is apparently democratic. TikTok allows creators to essentially poach the audio of any other video, to be reused or remixed or appropriated for new content types. Throughout the life cycle of an audio, one can find apparently endless variations on it for weeks or months. And users can “duet” previously existing videos with their reactions or own twist on a message. “Online messages may feel ephemeral, and, indeed, websites may be there one day and different or gone the next,” Baym writes (13–14), and the longevity of TikTok, as mentioned, is now questionable. With its viral trends of the moment, TikTok’s memetic concentration also makes concepts feel old within a relatively short amount of time; a whole subcommunity on the app can essentially run an idea into the ground with oversaturation.

TikTok’s social cues (Baym concept number three), then, are informed by trends and the people who start them. Therefore, much of the discourse on the platform is started by or in reaction to its core audience: what is referred to as Gen Z, defined by this writer at least as those born after the turn of the 21st century. “People in online groups often develop rich in-group social environments that those who’ve participated for any length of time will recognize” (Baym 13). This idea informs both the creation and consumption of TikTok content. Echo chambers of outrage, either from “woke” contingents or those that claim political correctness is ruining our society, can circulate throughout TikTok’s apparently carefree and fun design.

But, of course, that may be just the perception of this writer. My imagined affordance with the app has become, in addition to a number of comedy videos, the viewing of critical analyses of world events, social behaviors, and media (I would say I’ve become firmly entrenched in “Film TikTok”). I found myself interested in seeing what a younger generation thinks about, say, Pulp Fiction (they’re often dismissive of it, which I disagree with) or the rising tide of fascism in this country and around the world (their thoughts on that matter I am generally in agreement with). Even without following these kinds of content creators, liking their videos, or entering the comment section, just curious viewings, sometimes not even all the way through, has induced TikTok’s algorithm into providing more content like this. At this point, without conscious intervention, I’m not quite sure how to shift my For You page content into different territory. The social cues I’m now picking up from the platform is that it is dominated by a younger, more socially conscious contingent of people exposed to a large amount of media from a young age.

The disconnect between the imagined affordances of TikTok’s designers and distinct subgroups of users demonstrates the wildly different perceptions of the nature of the platform’s content. Precisely because its powerful algorithm provides a certain kind of content, depending on who the user is, said user comes away from using TikTok thinking it is nothing but, for example, critical teens. Others may come away with a plethora of new recipes, or fun dances to try out. TikTok’s greatest strength is defining these audiences and giving them a place to interact. Its greatest weakness is nearly the same thing; the app doesn’t incentivize users to find new content. In that, TikTok may not appear unique among its social media contemporaries.

But even more so than Twitter, or Facebook, or YouTube, TikTok is built around finding apparently new voices (that still fit into the algorithm’s perception of what you want to see). There’s a reason why the app opens to the For You page right away, instead of the Following page. Previous social media platforms, for all their attempts to increase algorithms’ effectiveness, still mostly revolve around a feed of subscribed content. Like those platforms, however, TikTok is still probably not the place for the kind of deep discussions attempted in its format. Whether the topic is Hamilton’s problematic elements or a user’s personal psychological trauma, TikTok’s content may ultimately be “phatic;” “phatic messages are not intended to carry information or substance for the receiver, but instead concern the process of communication” (Miller 394). TikTok, unique as I’ve claimed it to be, may just be the evolution of the need for many to stay relevant in the increasingly saturated digital world. Its reach, replicability, and social cues have taken on a new form, changing the paradigm of social media affordances (“real” and imagined) slightly in the process.

Baym, Nancy K. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Polity, 2015.

Miller, Vincent. “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, vol. 14, no. 4, 2008, pp. 387–400.

Nagy, Peter and Gina Neff. “Imagined Affordance: Reconstructing a Keyword for Communication Theory.” Social Media + Society, vol. 1, no. 2, 2015, pp. 1–9.

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