TikTok Users Are Convinced the Platform’s Algorithm Hates Them

TikTok is doing everything faster — including fostering an agitated creator base blaming their woes on the whims of the algorithm

Chris Stokel-Walker
Aug 7, 2019 · 4 min read
Image: Chris Stokel-Walker

TikTok’s rise has been astronomical. The shortform video sharing platform has not only redefined music, but the app gained its first billion users in three years, a number that YouTube took eight years to achieve. (It’s only been available as TikTok in the United States for just over a year.) On the app everything works at hyperspeed, churning through trends and memes at a rate of knots. Things work in double-time on all sides — including the alienation of creators.

A subsection of TikTok’s userbase has become increasingly vocal about the way it believes the app’s algorithm is downplaying their videos.

“Some of you may have picked up that my views have been dropping — bad,” explained Tamzin Taber, a 19-year-old TikToker from England, in one video posted at the weekend. “It doesn’t add up. I have 1.1 million [fans], and I’m getting less than 100k views. And I’m not the only person it’s happening to.”

Taber tagged a number of other creators in the comments section of her video, while others chimed in with their personal travails against TikTok. (Taber, alongside half a dozen creators who were either tagged as those affected, or who came forward in the comments section to complain they were affected, approached for this story, but did not respond.)

Other viewers commiserated with Taber, saying she had been “shadowbanned” from the platform.

“It’s strange,” says Rupert Vaughan, an 18-year-old British TikToker with 50,000 fans, who has seen the disparity between his average uploads and the worst-performing vary by several thousand views.

He first began to be suspicious when views on his videos dropped preciptously. “There was nothing wrong with the video, nothing against their community guidelines,” he says. “I was kind of left in the dark.

“Some videos get pushed to a lot of people and a lot of my followers and newcomers see them, but then some videos barely get pushed out at all, and get barely any views. It’s quite disappointing when you’ve spent a long time on a video or you’re excited about one and it doesn’t get seen by many people.

“I honestly don’t know what causes it,” he says. “It seems fairly random. It’s either hit or miss, and I think the most frustrating thing is just not knowing why they aren’t getting pushed to people.”

But has anything changed with TikTok’s algorithm? Is there a massive conspiracy against certain creators? Or has what people like changed — and creators haven’t changed with tastes?

“I think in general, I think creators don’t pay enough attention to the algorithm that govern their lives. They focus on it when they see a downtrend,” says Guillaume Chaslot, an ex-YouTube engineer who runs AlgoTransparency, a site focused on demystifying how YouTube’s algorithm works.

“Many creators observe correlations in their successful content and assume that correlation means causation algorithmically,” agrees Matt Gielen of Little Monster Media Co, a consultancy specializing in deciphering the YouTube algorithm. “This is where most misunderstandings of social media platforms come from.

“There is a ton of disinformation or information that isn’t very accurate that floats around — this is because algorithms are incredibly complex features that the common person doesn’t really understand. So the information gets translated and interpreted poorly and you get this game of telephone happening. This is very true in the creator community.”

“I think the most frustrating thing is just not knowing why they aren’t getting pushed to people”

Nine times out of 10, the problem isn’t with the algorithm, but with the content. “If you’re a creator or media company that normally gets 100,000 views on a video and you put out a video that gets 50,000 views, more often than not it’s a problem with the creator or video than it is with a change in algorithm,” says Gielen.

A TikTok spokesperson declined to comment on the record for this story, but said that they hadn’t noticed any irregularities around views for creators. They pointed out the difference between TikTok and YouTube’s algorithm, which recommends videos based on people’s interests rather than their celebrity on the app, so even TikTokers with huge followings aren’t guaranteed high views if the content isn’t up to snuff.

But perversely, it appears to creators trying to decipher the TikTok algorithm that the app doesn’t want users to change their output. “It seems that to push videos you almost have to just remake the ones you know get views, like your previous videos which have blown up,” says Vaughan. “It stops you from making different content, which sucks, but if you want to gain views and followers you need to just keep putting out the same kind of video over and over again.”

That could create the early stages of the hamster wheel mentality we’ve seen on YouTube, where creators feel trapped into posting the same kind of content for fear of alienating their audience — or angering the algorithm.

Vaughan is not alone in having his bust-ups with TikTok’s algorithm. “It seems to be a problem most people have,” he says. “A lot have complained about it. I’m not too bothered — it gives me an incentive to keep working harder. But it can be annoying sometimes.”

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

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