New research reveals the secrets behind TikTok’s algorithm


TikTok, despite its status as a potentially disappearing app, still claims one billion monthly users worldwide. If an app is young, its relatively meteoric rise is often linked to its algorithm. With unstoppable precision, this one even inspired other major social networks to stay in the race, like Facebook or Instagram.

Franziska Roesner, an associate professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Computer Engineering at the University of Washington, therefore decided to take a closer look at this algorithm. The study, which brought together 347 TikTok users, will be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) web conference in 2024. The idea behind the study is decipher this algorithm a little more precisely. Roesner provided some details in this interview given to the media Future, this worked out.

Recommendation algorithm: impressive accuracy

The recruited 347 people thus made it possible to collect 9.2 million video recommendations. The researchers looked at the first 1,000 user-suggested videos. They found that in a proportion oscillating between a third and a half, these proposals actually corresponded to the interests foreseen by the platform. Quite an impressive result.

Another study presented by the same team at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Honolulu explored another topic. Engagement trends, i.e. how users interact with content on a given platform. Here too, the results prove that the algorithm is quite powerful disproportionately maximize the time the user is present.

In the first four months of use, the average time users spent on TikTok increased half an hour a day. In the most extreme cases, it can be up to 50 minutes. At this level, it’s almost magic!

Understand the impact of the algorithm on users

Could the TikTok algorithm be manipulative? Already last year, he drew the ire of Amnesty International, the non-governmental organization accused him of being dangerous for the mental health of young people. As Roesner points out in an interview: “ If the algorithm exploits people’s weaknesses towards certain types of content, it could push them towards extreme content that is harmful to their mental health or expose them to misinformation. “.

The researcher even describes it as “ black box “, which even the designers do not understand how it works in detail. This opaque nature reinforces its addictive power, as shown by the increasing amount of time users spend on TikTok. So the algorithm would be completely out of control?

As Roesner explains, it’s important to be interested predictive characteristics to understand it more. ” As researchers, we are interested in the characteristics it uses to make its predictions because without understanding those characteristics, we cannot really understand if and why a prediction is problematic. “he clarifies.

A study by Roesner highlights the algorithm’s impact on the user experience. Indeed, the platform stands out by offering relevant and engaging contentpushing them to ask for more. An addiction that can have detrimental effects on their mental health, well-being and discernment.

Exploitation videos and exploration videos

The study reveals the central mechanism at the heart of the TikTok algorithm : fine alternation between exploratory videos AND operational videos.

Research videos are available lead users to unknown areas of the site, which introduced them to new content and creators they never knew existed. Roesner explains: “ An exploratory video is characterized by a lack of connection to previous videos viewed by the user and does not use similar hashtags or well-known authors. Here is the interest to discover brand new content thanks to the algorithm ».

Operational videos, on the other hand, turn into informed guides, takes them to familiar territory, nurtures passions and thereby strengthens pre-existing affinities. ” Exploitative videos are those that follow the logic of “We know what you like, we’ll show you more videos related to those interests” “he clarifies.

This clever balance between exploration and exploitation creates the cornerstone of user engagement and partly because of this, TikTok is able to hold its users captive, tossing them between discovery and empowerment.

The work of the study is extremely important to better understand how TikTok affects its users, but they cannot explain everything. There are still many gray areas and they deserve deeper research. In an ideal world, ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) should be able to play the game more transparently. With the colossal sums at stake and the current state of things, there is little chance of that happening. This is why science is of paramount importance. Because it gives us the tools and knowledge to navigate and understand these complex designs, regardless of commercial interests.

  • Two studies looked at TikTok’s algorithm to better understand how it works.
  • This is so well established that it offers its users suitable videos at a very high ratio and causes daily increase in the usage time of the application during the first months of use.
  • This work also highlighted the importance of alternating between exploratory videos AND operational videos.

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Tick ​​Tock

Author: TikTok Pte. Ltd.



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