It’s funny to admit that this writing, the first I’ve attempted in months, was entirely catalyzed by my time spent on Tik Tok over the last few weeks, which is like the opposite of writing. Although I didn’t expect to, I’ve been thinking about this app a lot. As someone who grew up alongside the astronomic rise of YouTube, it’s hard to shake some of the parallels, but compelling to examine what Tik Tok has done differently and why it may be important to think about going forward in an increasingly chaotic digital era. In short, I’m pretty sure that Tik Tok is like a YouTube’s YouTube: endless algorithmicized content spanning all topics and personalities, but briefer and more sensory in nature. YouTube still stands alone as a great distillery of infotainment, a two-way mirror, serving as both a reflection of the IRL and a kind of incubator in its own right. But Tik Tok utterly leans into and capitalizes on nearly every advantage of the short form — specifically, the Minute — and manages to offer a more visceral and unique experience, one which has proven to enrapture users of all ages, but particularly those in younger demographics, and I feel the mechanisms behind this experience merit some organized thought.
At the core of its design, Tik Tok seems to have hit a temporal sweet spot in offering the briefest content possible that proves meaningful to users, such that those users will keep returning to the app. To illustrate, Tik Tok’s spiritual predecessor Vine fell off the map in part because its six-second ceiling turned out to be a serious limitation on the kind of content people could produce, which was not a great combo with the fact that the app refused to host monetized ads (which I personally respect quite a bit). More to the point is that six seconds was simply not enough time to host meaningful content that could sustain a broad enough user base. In the present day, Tik Tok operates on the Minute: a deceptively high-potential window that’s proven a universally workable common denominator for creators, audiences, and advertisers in a way that Vine ignorantly undershot and Instagram ignorantly overshot (with Instagram video and IGTV, which also contributed to Vine’s demise). There is something about the Minute, the crucial variable in Tik Tok’s golden short-form equation, that when compounded — Tok after Tok— effectively bends time. I mean, it’s absurd. I struggle to recall the last time an hour went by so quickly. The app is by no means the first to achieve this effect — all entertainment achieves this to some degree, and to some degree this is why we continue to seek out and produce more and new entertainment — but Tik Tok in particular is maybe the slickest time dilator in the game right now, and in my book would be worth getting into for this reason alone. So what is there to it?
As far as I can tell, any given Tok is, like a Vine, comically easy to absorb. Contrasted with movies, shows, podcasts, and even YouTube videos, the stakes are lowered to 60 seconds or less a pop. What stakes? Your time commitment, you would guess, but this is precisely what the developers end up siphoning from you in the long run. The beginning of a rabbit hole is always innocuous, like the first three Oreos, but we know where this ends up. In thirty minutes you’ve barely shifted your body position and are just beginning to feel a wear on your senses — an eye rub, a back pop, some heavy blinks and some re-focusing to the back wall of your room before resuming the scroll. Early on, the infinite scroll struck me as some kind of savant bastard child of YouTube and Tinder, and in the midst of it I’d briefly consider that an entire generation is currently developing through this pattern of media absorption but would soon abruptly realize that I’d been hearing the same Tok again and again, like carnival music that goes from whimsical to nightmarish, and would return to the scroll to cleanse my palate. The subtle effect of the short-form loop is that it keeps things moving: it invites another rewatch, maybe several, then soon leaves you no choice but to mute your audio or keep scrolling to keep from going insane. I’ve found it interesting that I‘ll get bored or jaded or annoyed with whatever I’ve just seen, even if it made me laugh or I saved it and sent it to someone. (Younger users seem to have higher repetition tolerances, although I have no real evidence of this other than anecdotes in the comments.) In any case if you really like it, you’ll watch it again later. Suffice it to say the loop encourages the scroll.
Easy to watch and easy to make. Certainly there are a lot of people who put serious work into their Toks, but more to the point is that viral Tik Tok events, with all their potential boons and woes for the uploader, don’t rely on high production value or even any intention of virality. They simply have to get a critical mass of users to engage in certain ways, in order to trigger amplification (which users have aptly figured out is influenced more by comments and shares rather than simple views). Amplification begets amplification, and the more accessible and recognizable the post’s humor or message, the further it will spread beyond the categorical niches and/or followers it was initially published to. For those who’ve used the app, this is basically the mechanism of the ‘For You’ page.
Thus overnight celebrities, the lucky auditioners, are routinely made in this medium, some able to forge tangibly brighter futures for themselves from a single algorithmic avalanche. This phenomenon actually underscores something I really appreciate about Tik Tok, which is that individuality, with its quirks and tics and uncanny qualities, is genuinely celebrated and often rewarded in some way or another, and thus persists at the heart of most of the content across the platform. People can amass legitimate followings for simply being themselves, or sharing their daily thoughts or hobbies or abilities or even disabilities —something close to who they actually are. One of my favorite accounts I’ve come across is a disabled comedian who constantly makes fun of himself, having reclaimed a lifetime of bullying and insecurity, and excels at this recurring bit, post after post. Humor such as this would run stale even on YouTube, which is more ideal for medium-form comedy (standup, podcasts), but somehow the restriction of Tik Tok’s Minute imparts more of an appreciation for what can be accomplished in a short timeframe.
While there’s an argument to be made for this kind of individuality lowering the bar for entertainment standards, there’s no denying that people themselves are often entertaining, stripped away from scripts and stories and produced fantasy. And while Tik Tok’s centering of the individual isn’t necessarily tied to the Minute (think of IG influencers and unlikely YouTube stars), the phenomenon makes it all that more enticing to the average user to contribute to the app with intentions of being included and possibly celebrated, because it’s absurdly easy to make a Tok, and the bar is set at one’s own individuality after all, and Tik Tok ends up cultivating and directing this mass FOMO spectacularly both with its ‘trends’ and its native editing abilities, which could elevate a completely new user to stratospheric volumes of views and comments in a single, simple post. The opportunity cost is low and the means at your fingertips, and who knows? A 10-second clip of your dog barking a certain way could get you thousands of followers, which in consistent hands and a consistent dog could easily turn into actual income. And times are hard.
But the most interesting and maybe most infamous reason Tik Tok is so successful, as far as I can tell, is that the app’s algorithm learns through your own subtle responses what you personally are more likely to enjoy watching in real time and in order to keep scrolling, as much time as you allow yourself per day, for as many days as possible. I can only speak for myself but I’m positive that the more time I’ve spent on the app, the more I’ve enjoyed it, and in a weird way appreciate the level this technology is at. It’s by no means perfect, and this isn’t even to say I enjoy it all that much, only more than when I first used it. But this is not something that can be said for Facebook or Twitter or even Instagram, which all seem to be plateauing if not regressing, slowly morphing into the same bland and stagnant UX, not to mention the unabashed and shameless presence of elders and relatives on these platforms, all of which have allowed Tik Tok’s faster-paced emotive devices to stand out and cement the app as the more resonant refuge for younger people.
So the ease of use, low opportunity cost of contributing, and intelligently tailored content all converge to compel the user to keep scrolling, a momentary and casual act which can quickly turn to daily habit as the app molds itself to you, and you to it, to some degree. All of this, I believe, is built on a foundation of the Minute loop format. It’s like a bottomless bag of trail mix, and the more you reach in, the more likely you are to pull out chocolate instead of raisins. The price of these odds? Nothing but time and attention — a deal even small children are able to make. At the least I have to admit that Tik Tok’s model is stimulating even for someone like me, who has felt long-jaded and cynical with most social media. At the end of the day, the very same devices that draw users in also work to compress their perception of time, whisking minutes under the rug as if they’ve barely passed, and to me this is the worrisome genius of the design. I see its power and can’t help but respect it. The question of whether users flock to the app because they unconsciously want time to pass quicker comes to mind but is out of the scope of this essay, I think.
To wrap it up, I don’t necessarily think all parts of Tik Tok’s model spell bad news. I also don’t mean to suggest that it could replace any of the other platforms mentioned — yet. Applied in the right way, there’s no telling how quickly this format could become a new standard for content that doesn’t absolutely need to be over a Minute in length. But there’s a good amount of positive aspects to the model, especially those that genuinely enable creative and individual expression, which I wouldn’t mind exploring further. All in all I think the platform has calcified a new digital culture on par with the emergence of YouTube, and at this point in time holds tremendous potential influence on the future of entertainment and maybe media of all sorts. After all, the children are the future, and it seems that Tik Tok-enabled short attention spans and an absurdist post-irony ethos will almost certainly be part of the package. At the same time, I do worry that the mechanisms of this app are almost single-handedly molding the psyche of at least one generation with each passing day, and aside from the fact that any one platform with that kind of impact ought to be constantly examined, there’s no doubt that there will be novel consequences of all sorts, good and bad, en masse, for young people coming of age alongside this technology. I only hope the good ones prevail.