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A look inside TikTok’s seemingly all-knowing algorithm

This simplified breakdown of the algorithm offered “a revealing glimpse both of the app’s mathematical core and insight into the company’s understanding of human nature — our tendencies toward boredom, our sensitivity to cultural cues — that help explain why it’s so hard to put down,” wrote the Times. But it also highlighted how the algorithm can steer you down a rabbithole of toxic content that “could induce self-harm.”

The new details build off an investigation by The Wall Street Journal earlier this year that used 100 automated “bot” accounts to chart the migration of an individual’s TikTok experience from a wide variety of popular, mainstream videos to more targeted, interest-specific content. For example, a bot that the WSJ programmed to have a general interest in politics was ultimately served videos about election conspiracies and QAnon. A spokesperson from TikTok pushed back against the WSJ report, saying that their experiment “isn’t representative of real user behavior because humans have a diverse set of interests.”

According to the document the Times saw, the equation for rating videos based on user activity generally accounts for a combination of likes, comments, play, and time spent on a clip. Somewhere in there is a formula that also calculates how interesting individual creators are to viewers. “The recommender system gives scores to all the videos based on this equation, and returns to users videos with the highest scores,” the Times reported.

The inventory problem
The ultimate goal is to present a content lineup that maximizes the time users spend on the app and keep them coming back. But TikTok engineers are aware that if they only feed one type of video to a user, that person would grow bored and leave the app. To solve this, they proposed two addendums to the algorithm that would show more videos from a creator it thinks you like, and put a daily limit on videos that have the same tags. They further considered diversifying recommendations in the “For You” tab, interspersing content you might like with others that you might not ordinarily see.

“The basic idea is that they want to have eyeballs on the page. You want to get people to use your product,” says Joshua Tucker, co-director of NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

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