The Toilet Paper

Why is everyone on TikTok?

TikTok has become incredibly popular in a short time. What sets it apart from other platforms, other than its Chinese ownership?

Stylised self-portrait in TikTok’s UI
What makes me tick? Attention. Lots of it. (Obligatory disclaimer: I’m not actually active on TikTok)

Since its initial release in 2016, the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform TikTok has grown so much in popularity that is threatening to ban the platform due to security and privacy concerns, which may or may not be legitimate.

It doesn’t really matter anyway, not for this study at least. In fact, the words “security” and “privacy” don’t appear even once in the entire paper. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, because it allows us to focus on other aspects of the platform, like how its users experience the platform and interact with (one very specific part of) it.

The authors used two means of data collection to learn more about how TikTok’s :

  1. The researchers first collected information about TikTok from publicly available sources (app store descriptions, whitepapers, news articles). They also used TikTok daily for a period of one month, during which they produced field notes, screenshots and screen recordings for further analysis.

  2. Semi-structured interviews with 14 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 who use TikTok. This is clearly not a very representative sample, but keep in mind that a sizeable portion of TikTok’s user base falls into a similar age group.

The findings suggest that almost everything on TikTok revolves around its almighty Algorithm.

How to train your algorithm


TikTok’s users have an increased awareness of its “infrastructure” compared to other platforms. This is largely due to the prominent role of the “For You” algorithm, which recommends content to users.

The first thing that users see when they open TikTok is which displays a never-ending feed of videos. Users rarely need to interact with anything other than this page, because the For You page makes sure that users always have fresh, interesting content to consume.

The exact workings of the algorithm behind the For You page are kept secret by its developer ByteDance, but it’s generally assumed that TikTok considers data from several sources, which include user interactions (views, likes, shares, follows, comments) and video information (captions, sounds, hashtags).

Participants mentioned that their experience on TikTok changed over time. Many report that there was a moment when “got them” and was able to capture their personalities and interests with pinpoint accuracy.

Participants expressed awareness that TikTok collected and shared their personal data, but this was seen as an acceptable trade-off due to what they get in return; a high-quality personalised feed.

That’s not to say that everyone was positive about the hyper-personalisation of the For You page. Some felt that they had gotten stuck in a bubble, while one reported that recommendations made by the algorithm are sometimes oddly specific – and not necessarily correct.

Regardless, participants understand that they have a relationship with the algorithm and that they can influence what it does by interacting with it via video likes, comments, etc.

Content is king


Study participants frequently praised the quality (relevance) of the content. Not only is recommended content more accurate than on competing platforms, users also see TikTok content as a way to stay “up to date” with trends, memes, and current events: maintaining a presence on TikTok helps users accumulate social currency.

Interestingly, when TikTok users talk about content it’s literally only about the content itself. Users rarely care about the context, e.g. the creator of the content. This is because there’s no need to follow other users or write comments, except when you want to “train” the algorithm. Participants also felt little need to use other TikTok functionalities, like direct messaging (unless they want to share content with other users) and content creation.

What exactly is TikTok?


Participants found it hard to describe their experiences using the platform and where exactly TikTok fell in the larger social media landscape. Many compared aspects of TikTok with other major platforms.

Twitter provides a stage for self-representation through the curation of content relevant to a user’s identity, through likes, retweets, and reblogging. The For You page is also used for this purpose. However, unlike Twitter, TikTok does not allow users to directly control what appears in their main feed.

TikTok also shows some similarity to YouTube and Instagram, both of which visually emphasise content over other features, like commenting. Moreover, YouTube has its own video recommendation algorithm, . However, this is where the similarities end. Both YouTube and Instagram are content communities, where users can follow other users and discuss presented content through comments, but on TikTok users don’t really interact with others for social self-making practices.

Finally, a comparison can be made between TikTok and Facebook. On social networks, users perform their identities by commenting, following, friending, and so on. Although TikTok offers similar functionality, it is rarely employed by users for its intended purpose.


  1. TikTok users spend more time interacting with the recommendation algorithm than with other users

  2. The TikTok community cares more about content than creators

  3. TikTok’ features are similar to those on other platforms, but are often used in different ways