Tiktok: The ultimate echo chamber
By Ed Amory, CEO
I tried TikTok when it first got going, and failed dismally. I have no rhythm, so was not excited by the prospect of synchronised dancing with my children, and wasn’t interested in watching others performing similar gyrations. However, a few months ago, impelled by the strong sense that no one can claim to run a communication business if they don’t understand the latest and fastest growing social platform, I had another go.
This time I listened carefully to advice from digital experts in my business, and my four children, about how to get the most from the platform. They explained that it has an extraordinarily effective algorithm, and if I persevered in watching and liking the content that worked for me, and flicking past and unliking the pointless dancing, it would learn my tastes and interests and start working for me. It would, they promised, take me on a journey.
Does TikTok’s For You Page really know you?
They were right, up to a point. The first three months were a voyage of discovery; not necessarily about the world, but back into myself. It turns out that I am amused by animal clips – I found a horse pulling someone on skis through the snow almost unbearably amusing. Also the app soon worked out how old I am, and plays me back clips from television shows and films from my past. And yes, I do love Yes, Minister, but I’m rather concerned by how much the app thinks it defines me.
There have been a few genuine revelations. I saw Nigel Farage, someone who I would never normally watch for more time than it took to switch channels, make some surprisingly perceptive remarks about the Royal Family and racism. But then I had to endure several weeks of similar political material as the algorithm had apparently decided I was an ageing bigoted Brexit backer. Currently, it thinks I want to watch Ronald Reagan tell jokes. I’m concerned that it might be right.
Then there was my brief attempt to use the app as a research tool. I was genuinely interested in how influencers like Andrew Tate had used TikTok and similar platforms to subtly radicalise a generation of young boys, often starting with relatively innocuous content involving cars and exercise routines. But having made the mistake of looking at some stuff about the virtues of surrendered wives, I then had to endure weeks of the same on the app which had clearly identified me as a raging misogynist.
The TikTok algorithm neither connects nor informs – it narrows
So now I have reached a rather depressing conclusion about TikTok, and before I delete it from my phone I thought I would share this more widely. Most social media platforms perform at best one of two services; either they connect people more easily (Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Linkedin), or disseminate information about the world faster and more effectively than before (Twitter, Facebook, Reddit). I don’t use any of these as much as I could but I understand their value when used in the right way. TikTok does neither.
Instead of expanding your world, it narrows it, the ultimate echo chamber. It identifies the subjects, obsessions, prejudices that make us tick as individuals, and by focussing on them, it magnifies their significance in our lives. If you have strong political or social views, they will become stronger by repeated exposure to the same views even more strongly expressed. If you have a tendency towards the trivial, it will amplify it; days can pass as you watch clips of pandas failing to climb trees. It reduces us to caricatures of ourselves, trawling through our knowledge and experience of the world, and playing it back to us. After several months, I don’t believe I have learnt anything new from the experience. In fact, the audiobook of Ulysses S Grant’s memoirs that I have been listening to over the past weeks has proved infinitely more provoking and interesting.
The TikTok countdown to the destruction of democracy
From a professional point of view, I would advise my clients to take TikTok very seriously indeed. Its immersive experience makes it far more addictive than similar platforms, and its current influence on consumer and ultimately corporate decision making can only expand exponentially. Often its influence begins because it feels educational: #Moneytok is where most young people are likely learning about finance.
But when I see politicians worrying about whether TikTok is a backdoor route for China to obtain information about us, I think they are at least in part missing the point. It doesn’t need to send any data anywhere, instead it’s created a narcissistic echo chamber that is perfectly designed to destroy our democracies by turning voters into more extreme, less well informed, versions of themselves. That – not Big Brother – is what we should all be really worrying about.