Examining our (sometimes toxic) relationship with our AI overlords.
By Michelle Santiago Cortés, a Cut contributor who writes about digital culture
By Michelle Santiago Cortés, a Cut contributor who writes about digital culture
Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images
Emely Betancourt would rather show you her Notes app before handing over access to her TikTok For You Page. It’s too eerily accurate a virtual mirror, she tells me, one that took hours of scrolling to create. The For You Page is TikTok’s primary feed. At first, it shows you its most palatable offerings: videos with millions of likes, celebrities, Charli D’Amelio — milquetoast, likable content. As you start watching and liking posts, you go deeper into a niche you’ve co-created with the platform’s famous algorithm. Betancourt knows it sounds intense, but she feels like her FYP truly understands her inside and out: “I feel like it’s really a reflection of my subconscious thoughts; even things I never say out loud, it will know.”
Like 100 million other Americans under lockdown, Betancourt started using TikTok during the early-2020 days of the pandemic — if the now-20-year-old couldn’t be in school and with friends, she could at least go on TikTok to interact with people outside her immediate family. Today, Betancourt spends anywhere between one to three hours a day on TikTok, her most-used app. “My For You Page is literally a culmination of everything that I am,” she says: a “perfect” reflection of her liberal politics and satirical sense of humor, but also of more personal things like her attachment style and trauma. It’s not perfect, of course. No matter the platform, algorithms will never have the full picture of who we are — they didn’t watch us grow up and they don’t know how we act around friends and family offline. She knows that an app she’s only used for about a year and a half couldn’t possibly fully know her, “but I feel so seen!” Betancourt said. She added that sometimes, “it’s hard to say that it doesn’t know me all the way because sometimes it does know me all the way.”
So much of our lives — from online dating, to search engines, to social-media feeds — is mediated by algorithms. And we talk about them like we actually know much about them. We complain about the Facebook algorithm and we gush (Betancourt isn’t alone) over TikTok’s. As I write this, some YouTube alpha male is out there uploading videos promising straight men advice on how to “hack” the Tinder algorithm to date like kings, and if you watch any of these videos, the site’s algorithm will use that query to offer you more unsolicited dating advice the next time you log in.
In reality, we don’t know nearly enough.
When we talk about “the algorithm” of any given platform, we’re sometimes talking about multiple algorithms that use artificial intelligence to metabolize the data that consumers (that’s us) provide through our interactions with the platform. These algorithms use that information to then curate that platform’s offering to its users (again, us). In other words: Our likes, swipes, comments, play time, and clicks provide these platforms up-to-the-minute updates on our needs and preferences and the algorithms use this information to determine what we see and when.
Exactly what that data counts for and how it’s used to offer us everything from TikToks to dating prospects is proprietary information that’s kept secret from us. And it doesn’t help that we’re only just becoming aware of the algorithms that shape and mold our digital worlds. Congress and the relevant regulating bodies, like the FTC, have recently begun honing in on commercial algorithms, which they’ve deemed as having too great an impact to go totally unregulated.
By the way, what little we do learn can quickly become obsolete since these algorithms are updated, refined, and tinkered with almost endlessly in ways that sometimes make headlines — like when Instagram phased out (and reintroduced) the chronological feed — but are usually unannounced.
So we mythologize.
When we decide that an algorithm can “understand us” and it matches us with songs, people, and TikToks that align with our needs and desires, we slip into a sort of weird devotion. When we match with the same person over and over on dating apps, we wonder if it’s a sign. We say things like “TikTok’s algorithm knew I was bi before I did” and are so impressed with its perceived ability to “know us” that we often worry if more sinister surveillance practices are at play. Our algorithmically orchestrated encounters with people on dating apps or psychology buzzwords on social media start to feel preordained, as if the fact that the algorithm put something on our path Means Something™.
Of course, that once-accurate mirror can easily — and often does — start to stretch and distort your reflection, and you begin to question if you even know what you look like. “I get a lot of TikToks about high-functioning autism and ADHD,” Betancourt tells me, and while she does have anxiety, the fact that the algorithm would think those videos applied to her made her think, “Do I have ADHD? Do I have high-functioning autism?” The habit of relating to things on her FYP made it easier to trust some of the algorithm’s more out-there suggestions: “It kind of plants that seed.” She says she has no reason to seek out a diagnosis for any of these conditions, but the fact that she even considered it made her realize how much credibility she gave her FYP. “Although there are gems and really valuable stuff on TikTok,” she explains, “not all of it is necessarily applicable to you, and you kind of have to draw the line and say, This is relatable, but I’m not necessarily autistic.”
Algorithmically curated feeds like TikTok’s — and even ones like Spotify’s and Tinder’s — can connect us with people and ideas that expand our worlds and minds while also making us feel more seen and less alone. But they can also make us feel really alienated, misunderstood, and commodified when they use our own data to show a warped version of ourselves.
Natasha Dow Schüll is an anthropologist and an associate professor at New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, whose work focuses on the psychic life of technology and the relationship between data and the self. “You can say all the smart reasons why you’re against these things, but if you look at people’s behaviors, even my own,” Schüll says, “at the end of the day, people like being recognized.” Along with all the value we get from engaging with these algorithms, we also get what Schüll describes as this sense of ambivalence that comes from being subtly aware of “this risky tendency that sort of looks like a spiral that you get caught in, where you’re at the bottom of this vortex or well and these forces are limiting your growth as a person and sort of pinning you and fixing you.”
Both in research and in public discussions about the power of these commercial algorithms, we often run into that question of addiction by design. “Just like a slot machine, every swipe, every date, every pull of the handle changes who you are in some way and further compels you and engages you,” Schüll says. “It’s this very dynamic flow of investment in both directions and we do not have any specific regulation that takes that into account.” We give these algorithms our time, our personal information, our likes — and make ourselves vulnerable — in exchange for that connection and understanding. We are, to varying degrees, okay with being surveilled as long as we get to feel seen.
The stakes are even higher for the algorithms on dating apps. When those algorithms determine whom you see and whom you’re shown to, they can easily start to feel like an authority on whom we should be attracted to and who should be attracted to us.
The way Tinder collects data, for example, is skewed: Users can choose from over a dozen gender-identity labels and select multiple sexual-orientation labels from a list of nine, but are asked to indicate if they’re looking to date men, women, or everyone. How can Tinder’s algorithm be expected to understand queer culture? In Hannah Sullivan Facknitz’s experience as a nonbinary bisexual, it can’t.
To Sullivan Facknitz, a 30-year-old grad student based out of Vancouver, being perceived by the algorithm felt the same as being perceived by any institution with power — like, for instance, a university. “The way I could be perceived by reading my résumé or my college transcripts, you see all the classes I took and the grades I got in them. They tell you something about me.” But there’s a huge gap in their transcript “where I flunked out and then came back.” A person reading a transcript with a gap might have to hear an explanation and learn more before making a decision. Any deviance from the norm could be counted against someone, even if they do get a chance to explain themselves. In the case of a dating-app algorithm (and even a hiring algorithm), we get sorted before we get a chance to explain ourselves.
On top of that, Sullivan Facknitz says, Tinder encourages quick-reaction swipes, and they tend to match with what they call their “impulse type,” the dating-app equivalent to the checkout counter’s candy selection: the familiar type they’ve already dated, and it didn’t work out, which is why they’re using Tinder in the first place. Instead of “meeting someone new,” they’re stuck in an unsatisfying, harmful even, swipe-right loop.
Interfacing with algorithmically curated apps like Tinder, for Sullivan Facknitz, worsened a feeling of being trapped in their worst pattern: “I would match with people who were like the men who victimized me and I was very confused and I dug into myself, emotionally and in a really destructive way, to try to excavate what the hell the algorithm was seeing in me that made me bad enough to deserve these men.” They felt like the algorithm saw something obvious they didn’t and kept coming back to figure out what it was. It took time and some personal growth for them to realize, “The algorithm was not smarter than me, it could [not] somehow see me clearer than I could see myself.”
That clarity has helped Sullivan Facknitz establish better relationships with the algorithms of their life — one that allowed them to wrestle back a bit of control. In fact, TikTok helped them realize they have ADHD, rather than convincing them. “It helped me ask that initial question,” they explain, adding that they then turned to members of their community who had been diagnosed for further guidance and then to medical professionals. “And it was a question I’d had my entire life. It wasn’t something the algorithm figured out for me, this was just another piece of information that helped me put the question together.”
It’d be totally naïve to trust that the companies behind these algorithms have our best interests at heart. TikTok’s main source of revenue is ad sales, and we learned from a recent New York Times column headlined “How TikTok Reads Your Mind” that “the app wants to keep you there as long as possible.” Tinder, on the other hand, makes most of its money from subscriptions, so it makes sense that the algorithm is only good enough to hook you onto the product, to keep you coming back for new prospects rather than make good on its promise of actually helping you connect. “Something that can be polar opposite in experience, in terms of healthy and harmful,” Schüll says, “are equally productive in terms of capitalism.”
The conversation sways between two extremes. “Some people would say that the answer to all of this is that you need a better algorithm,” Schüll says. Maybe smarter algorithms (that use even more data) can do a better job of understanding us — changes, ambivalences, inconsistencies, and all — rather than boxing us into a fixed version of ourselves. “This is the technological answer,” Schüll notes. But then there are those who’d say more technology will jeopardize some unquantifiable human quality — maybe our souls? — and that we should just put down our phones. “That’s an extreme humanist answer,” Schüll adds. “And I don’t go that way, either, because I feel like we’re all technological beings.”
She doesn’t have a clean-cut answer, but concludes that “I find it just as ridiculous to say that there is something anti-human about algorithms that contaminates our experience.” We’ve had enough meaningful experiences with algorithms and technology to think it’s that black-and-white.
If you’ve ever read a horoscope that made you feel a wave of dread (or made you annoyed at the idea of having your fate handed to you), then you can see how our relationship to these algorithms and astrology are similar. In a blog post, astrologer Alice Sparkly Kat offers some useful insights on how algorithms see us: “The predictable person that the algorithm imagines you to be is a corporate fiction.” Sparkly Kat writes that, somewhat similarly, astrology is a language that can help people describe themselves, “but it is also a technology that can try to tell you who you are.” Once upon a time, astrology was invoked to reduce the whole of a person to what the stars said they were. We are not our sun signs, nor are we who our algorithms say we are. We’ve learned to use astrology as a tool for interpretation, as a language to work through things we’re trying to understand. Maybe we can turn algorithms into better tools. For Schüll, step one is obviously regulation (“at the moment, it’s what we have to work with”).
In the end, these algorithms are just human creations. Like the front-facing camera on your phone, they distort what we see. There is no such thing as a perfectly accurate reflection, and maybe, with more awareness of how algorithms distort what we see, we can harness their power for ourselves.
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How is the TikTok algorithm so accurate? ›
Video information in practice
With a trending sound, the TikTok algorithm can identify a group of people who are likely to engage with a video based on previous user interactions. If a user watches a video to the end each time a certain sound is used, they are likely enjoying the content and want to see more of it.
TikTok's algorithm is a complicated set of instructions that determines what content will be displayed on each user's FYP—a recommendation system for each user, in other words.Does clearing TikTok cache reset the algorithm? ›
Clearing your cache on this video-sharing platform just means that you're going to erase temporary data that takes up unnecessary storage on your smartphone. The cached data is merely your pre-loaded profile information and your watch history.How long does TikTok algorithm take? ›
He says TikTok is different from other social media platforms. “The algorithm on TikTok can get much more powerful and it can be able to learn your vulnerabilities much faster.” In fact, TikTok fully learned many of our accounts' interests in less than two hours. Some it figured out in less than 40 minutes.Do shorter Tiktoks get more views? ›
2. Keep it short and sweet. Though TikTok videos can now be up to three minutes long, videos under 30 seconds are more likely to wind up on the FYP. It's also more likely someone would rewatch something that's fast-and-furious a second or third time.Why do my Tiktoks get low views? ›
Low engagement happens when users do not like or share your video and can cause TikTok to stop showing those videos as it is seen as unpopular content. Shadowban is a light ban on content creators when they violate minor terms of service, and that can be anything related to sharing sensitive content.How many views in an hour on TikTok is good? ›
🌟 How many views in an hour on TikTok is good? Viral videos must get at least 500 full views in half an hour, if not more. A single view, according to TikTok, is when visitors watch the video without skipping or leaving. However, if the viewer loops the video, each loop counts as one view.Do favorites affect TikTok algorithm? ›
The TikTok algorithm is based on a user's interactions with the app's content. Anything that provides information about the type of content the user prefers or dislikes can impact the algorithm (which accounts you follow, creators you've hidden, comments you've posted, etc.).
Disconnect found that data being transmitted to TikTok can include your IP address, a unique ID number, what page you're on, and what you're clicking, typing, or searching for, depending on how the website has been set up.What determines your TikTok algorithm? ›
“Recommendations are based on a number of factors,” it said in 2020, “including things like user interactions such as the videos you like or share, accounts you follow, comments you post, and content you create; video information, which might include details like captions, sounds, and hashtags; [and] device and account ...
Can you delete TikTok algorithm? ›
First, open the TikTok app and go to the profile tab. Next, tap the hamburger menu icon in the top corner and select “Settings and Privacy.” Scroll down to “Free Up Space.”
How often you post can also affect how your content is distributed on the platform (TikTok recommends posting 1-4 times per day). To find a posting schedule that will please both the TikTok algorithm and your fans, keep a close eye on your performance until you find a frequency that works.What is the problem with TikTok algorithm? ›
Each of TikTok's primary search channels — user search, video search, and hashtag search — is potentially vulnerable to misspelling and homoglyph filter evasion because the algorithm either isn't sophisticated enough to block these permutations or hasn't been programmed to accommodate for them.What happens when you delete data from TikTok? ›
Even though your data will not be deleted immediately by TikTok, once you click delete, the process cannot be reversed. If you change your mind later, you will need to start a new account.How do I get my FYP back to normal? ›
- Follow Accounts You Like. ...
- Watch and Re-Watch. ...
- Press “Not Interested” ...
- Like and Share. ...
- Add to Favorites. ...
- Comment on Videos You Like. ...
- Use the Search Option. ...
- Change Your Location.
- Consistently post at the right time. ...
- Use trending hashtags. ...
- Post unique (and better) content. ...
- Create short, engaging videos. ...
- Collaborate with influencers. ...
- Use trending audio clips or video effects to boost discoverability. ...
- Write short, interesting captions. ...
- Use a hook to draw in your audience.
Unfortunately, it seems that liking your own TikTok does absolutely nothing to boost its performance – at least not directly. Liking your own TikToks doesn't affect how many people its exposed to on the For You page, nor does it directly lead to any additional views.What is the best time to post on TikTok? ›
- Monday: 6 a.m., 10 a.m., 10 p.m.
- Tuesday: 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 9 a.m.
- Wednesday: 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 p.m.
- Thursday: 9 a.m., 12 p.m., 7 p.m.
- Friday: 5 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m.
- Saturday: 11 a.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m.
- Sunday: 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 4 p.m.
According to our research, 6 am to 10 am and 7 pm to 11 pm would be the best time to post on TikTok, whereas the best days to post on TikTok are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.Can a TikTok video go viral later? ›
Unlike Instagram, where a post will remain alive only for 48 hours after posting, TikTok videos will stick around for much longer and can go viral weeks after getting posted. Hence, there is no specific timeline for TikTok videos to go viral. Every video will have its own time of getting popular.
How much does TikTok pay per 1,000 views? ›
As for the TikTok Creator Fund, you can earn between 2 and 4 cents for every 1,000 views. This means you might expect $20 to $40 after reaching a million views.Do longer videos do worse on TikTok? ›
TikTok's success was built on rapid-paced 7-15 second videos. Over the last few years, the platform extended its maximum video length all the way to 10 minutes. Many TikTok social media managers and experts report that longer videos can produce more views and engagement on TikTok in 2023 and beyond.How do I know if I am Shadowbanned TikTok? ›
- Content is not visible on the For You page or search.
- Videos won't upload (they will say “under review” or “processing” instead)
- A drastic drop in likes, views, or shares.
Use the TikTok “Promote” feature
TikTok provides creators an opportunity to advertise their videos to a specific audience. But first, you need to purchase “coins” to fund your promotion campaign. To promote your existing video, tap the 'More' button and then select 'Promote. '
You should delete content that goes against the rules and community guidelines laid down by TikTok. After deleting inappropriate content, you have to wait for at least two weeks to get the shadowban lifted. You can refresh your device once in a while to check if you have finally managed to lift the ban.How many views is viral? ›
Generally, posts with 100,000+ likes or views and 1,000+ comments are considered to be viral. However, the term 'viral' is subjective and can mean different things to different brands. For example, you might consider a post to go viral if it crosses 10,000 views.Why do my TikToks get 0 views for hours? ›
If your TikTok video has no views after an hour…
TikTok has to make sure videos are within their community guidelines. They tend to pick up on TikTok videos that may contain inappropriate content and will hold them back to keep their audiences safe. “But my video is totally within their guidelines!” we hear you say.
An average like to watch ratio is around 4% or 4 likes to 100 views. Anything above that ratio is considered above average or good. Mid-Tier accounts are considered an average of around 1000-3000 views, you can calculate base on this average.Can Tiktokers see if you add a TikTok to your favorites? ›
No more private lurking. You can no longer favorite a TikTok in peace. Earlier this month, TikTok made an update that notifies creators when someone favorites their video on the app. This means your favorites aren't as anonymous as they used to be, which frankly sucks the fun out of the favorites feature.Does buying TikTok followers affect the algorithm? ›
When you purchase bot followers, they grow your follower count for a few days or weeks. Eventually, the TikTok algorithm wipes those bots off everyone's accounts, and you are back where you started. Another concern is that if you buy too many bot followers or likes, TikTok may go after your account.
Do followers or likes matter more on TikTok? ›
The more likes you have on a video, the more likely that video is to show up on a For You page of a relevant potential follower, and the more you show up on the For You page, the more followers you'll gain—which again, increases your chances of getting on more For You pages.Can TikTok watch you through your camera? ›
Can TikTok access your camera? Yes, TikTok can access your camera, but only if you give the app permission. Keep in mind, though, that denying TikTok's access to your camera will prevent you from shooting content through the app, but you can still upload already-recorded videos to the platform.Can you tell if someone searches you on TikTok? ›
Yes, creators can see some of the people who viewed their TikTok profile, as long as they have the profile views feature enabled. Although TikTok removed the ability to see who has viewed your profile a while back, in January 2022 there were reports that TikTok was adding the feature back in on an opt-in basis.Can you tell if someone searches your TikTok profile? ›
You can turn your Profile view history on or off in your privacy settings or on your Profile views page. Turning off profile view history means you will not be able to see who has viewed your profile, and others would not be able to see that you've viewed theirs too.How do I reset my FYP content on TikTok? ›
- Tap the three dots icon on the top-right corner.
- Scroll down to select “free up space.”
- Hit “clear” next to the “cache” option.
- Go to your new FYP.
- To get the algorithm going, find the videos you don't like.
- Select the Login, and follow the steps you would take to login to your original account normally.
- Once you've done this, you'll see the “Reactivate your Tiktok account” window. Tap the “Reactivate” button and you'll be taken back to Tik Tok and your profile will be restored.
- Delete Your Flagged Content.
- Follow TikTok's Community Guidelines.
- Avoid Spam-like Behavior.
If your videos get 100 or fewer views, you're going to have a zombie account, so delete and start again. Videos that get between 1000–3000 views mean you have a mid-tier account. Videos that get 10,000+ views mean you have a “head” account.Do you lose likes if you delete a TikTok video? ›
Yes, you lose likes when you delete TikTok videos permanently. To avoid losing likes, make your video private instead of deleting it completely.Do TikTok views count more than once? ›
Different social media platforms measure “views” in different ways, but on TikTok, it's super simple: the very second your video starts to play, it's counted as a view. If the video autoplays or loops, or a viewer comes back to watch it multiple times, those all count as new views.
How do you make a TikTok post go viral? ›
- Participate in trends.
- Use hashtags wisely.
- Create engaging and share-worthy content.
- Start with a hook and keep it short.
- Engage with your audience.
- Become good at editing.
- Collaborate with other creators or brands.
- Post consistently.
Now one of the biggest reasons to have a separate account for your consuming is because when you consume and interact with content on TikTok, the algorithm will start showing you more content of what you consume.Can I delete all my Tiktoks and start over? ›
Unfortunately, TikTok doesn't allow you to delete all TikTok's at once. You have to delete them one by one manually.