There's a reason I'm on the app for four hours a day
There’s something about TikTok eclipsing of Google in web traffic that felt almost inevitable.
According to my iPhone, I spend an average of 4 hours a day on TikTok. Between 5AM and 7AM, when I first wake up and between 11PM and 1AM, long after my boyfriend has dozed off and I’m preparing to sleep. I am easily viewing a little under 1,000 TikToks a day. Now scale those numbers to whomever is behind its 3.3 billion downloads; it’s not so crazy to see why it has claimed the web’s number one spot in traffic.
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But why do people spend so much time on TikTok? Why do I spend so much time on it?
TikTok invites heavy, trance-like usage unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. You’re lulled into a state of never-ending swiping, 15 to 30 seconds of a catchy song looping over everything from impoverished men dancing in drag to the ruins of the USSR to enticing recipes. In a single minute, you’re rubbernecking, getting angry about communism and feeling hungry.
It does something to you that Google, or even other social media apps, could never compete with.
You might compulsively Google questions or scroll photos on Instagram, but TikTok asks nothing of you. It doesn’t even need to hear your idle thoughts, via a Googled question or a status update on Facebook or Twitter.
So sophisticated is the app that it knows the exact kind of videos you want to view. This is at once acknowledged as a sign that TikTok may not be trustworthy and celebrated, as demonstrated through the popularity of TikTok psychics and tarot card readings, where it’s common to believe you’ve “manifested” the video you were supposed to see. A disturbingly specific video might make you think, “this app is violating my privacy,” but it also takes on an almost magical quality. It knows you, and that could be used for good, even if there’s also a capacity for malevolence.
But is it the user interface alone that makes TikTok so powerful, even in a climate where people are increasingly distrusting of Big Tech? While that’s a big part of it, I think something else is afoot, too. TikTok is alluring for the same reason you go looking for advice on Reddit: it’s unfiltered. It is humans offering advice to other humans. TikTok shares that humanity. It’s mediated by a screen, but it feels real.
Manicured influencers abound just like any other app, but for the most part, videos are messy, bizarre, unpredictable. It mirrors the unpredictability of human-to-human interaction in the physical world, but without any of the legwork. Reinforced by an addictive UI and a spate of seemingly never-ending restrictions on how we socialise, no wonder people can’t stop swiping.