On user-generated content platforms — TikTok, Twitter, Instagram — the algorithm determines what users see and, ultimately, how they behave. Engineers and product designers deliver and amplify content that meets their business goals.
In a subtle but consequential sleight of hand, TikTok’s product designers set the “for you” page as the default landing page for all users. This is the equivalent of Twitter and Instagram directing all visitors to their “moments” or “search” pages. On TikTok, the “for you” feed is filled with videos from anyone with a public account. Where Twitter and Instagram encourage you to follow your favorites and build your own feed, TikTok uses its algorithms to show you what’s popular. Although the app maintains a separate feed dedicated to accounts you follow, this feed is not nearly as popular. One study of TikTok found that less than a quarter of users had ever clicked on the feed of accounts they follow.
TikTok’s “for you” page makes sense from a business perspective. It immediately hooks new users with content proven to get them to engage. While most apps use this tactic to some degree (Facebook and Twitter pepper their feeds with posts “you might like”), TikTok uses it more than most.
Taylor is a 17-year-old TikTok user. She started out on Musical.ly and transitioned to TikTok after the two apps merged. Hardly any of Taylor’s videos have received more than 10 likes, but a few weeks ago, a video of Taylor lip-syncing to Pleasure P’s “I Love Girls” was featured on the “for you” page. It’s not an interesting video. It’s just Taylor staring into her phone’s camera and mouthing the words to the song: She take my shirt off, put my hands up. I pull her hair back, you know she like it rough.
Taylor’s video has received more than 2,400 likes so far.
Taylor says she didn’t realize her video had made the “for you” page until she started getting more likes than usual. Another tip-off: Comments from users who didn’t follow her.
The app’s content delivery strategy sets its users up to receive unwanted comments.
“Some guy was like, ‘I’ll do all that to you the right way,’ which was weird,” Taylor tells me. Compared to comments on an app like Instagram, Taylor says TikTok’s comments are “probably more creepy.”
Underage girls may receive a disproportionate number of creepy comments on the app, but there are other forms of harassment on TikTok as well. One user, a 26-year-old man, appeared in my “for you” page a number of times because of his viral collaborations with other users. The user — who is bald and dances with reckless abandon — received comments asking if he has autism (he doesn’t) and telling him he is the reason adults shouldn’t be allowed to use the app.
The app’s content delivery strategy sets its users up to receive unwanted comments. Any user with a public TikTok account can be exposed to hundreds of millions of strangers without warning (Taylor says TikTok did not tell her in advance that she would be featured). Tweens create content, hoping for their 15 minutes of fame, only to be creeped out when it arrives.
“On Instagram, you can have a public account, but your content probably won’t be put in front of people you don’t know as easily as on TikTok,” Christine Elgersma, of Common Sense Media, a parent-focused media watchdog, tells me.
TikTok isn’t the only platform where underage users are hypersexualized. But the behavior is more severe on TikTok because teen users create videos that respond to the lyrics of explicit songs. “I think because TikTok is using music, and because popular music often has sexual innuendo, the app skews more mature,” Elgersma says. American teens have always sung along to explicit lyrics, often without knowing what they mean. Now an app helps them do it for a built-in audience of millions.
When I ask Taylor why she thinks that video of her lip-syncing to “I Love Girls” was featured on the “for you” page (as opposed to any of her other videos), she says, “I don’t know, probably just the music I used.”