If people like cat videos, why don’t I see them?
"I downloaded TikTok...while this no doubt sounds like a terrible decision for my poor eyeballs, I have found it absolutely fascinating and for one very good reason."
Over the last few months of lockdown I have started becoming quite aware of my screen time. Between a solid eight hours on the computer screen for work, followed by an hour or two of TV screen time to help unwind and polished off by an extra hour of Instagram, Reddit and Youtube on the small screen in my pocket to help fill in the gaps.
It was starting to really pile up, so naturally I decided I needed to do something.
I downloaded TikTok.
Now while this no doubt sounds like a terrible decision for my poor eye-balls, I have found it absolutely fascinating and for one very good reason. It’s not everyday that you start completely fresh on a new social media platform. No followers, no friends, no history of likes and searches. No data, nothing to optimise. The algorithm had absolutely no way to tailor the content to me and my tastes. It struck me how unusual and scarce that has become in our lives.
I must say, upon firing up the app for the first time, I don’t think TikTok appreciated my evasiveness. I was promptly hit with a rapid fire series of questions, prying for just a sniff at my data. Do you want to link your Google account? What are your interests? Do you want to import your contacts? Sync with your Instagram and Facebook account?
I started to reflect on my other social media. I first made a Facebook account back in 2008 and my instagram in 2011. That’s at least a decade’s worth of likes, follows, friends, comments, reactions and (inevitably) ad clicks. I have no doubt if you know where to look, you’d be able to see all my long term patterns and influences. My social media usage has developed a rhythm, personalised to how I consume. Endlessly feeding me the things I like and steering me away from the things I don’t. To put it frankly, I’m pretty firmly in my own echo-chamber.
Needless to say, diving into TikTok I was immediately and somewhat refreshingly in uncharted territory. The first video I saw was a redubbed clip of Peppa Pig calling everyone a c*nt. Followed swiftly by a mum’s lunchbox packing tips and then a video of a homeless man under the effect of drugs, remixed to an electro dance track. It was a real scattergun approach to what was clearly the most popular content trending on the platform, perhaps TikTok in its absolute purest form. An hour of fascinated scrolling later, I was starting to see a real cross section of the type of content people are consuming and I was genuinely surprised by a lot of it.
As an industry we are always trying to stay one step ahead of culture. Recognising trends and adapting to changes in consumer values. Yet I’ve found it’s so easy for social media to give us a distorted sense of how similar we are to those around us. It’s a double edged sword, we feel more comfortable in an online community of similar minds and values, but it also pulls us further from the reality around us. Further from the incredible diversity of people in our society that as a profession we aim to understand.
Particularly in these Covid times when we are almost exclusively engaging online, I have found it truly eye opening to step out of my digital echo chamber with an open mind for a while. While I’m sure it doesn’t sound very groundbreaking to watch a bunch of unfiltered TikToks, I really had to go out of my way to see them. It’s unfortunately far too easy to simply follow the algorithm and slip into a narrow world view.
So I encourage you to go out of your way this week to take a peek behind your own personalised feeds and recommendations. See what’s genuinely popular and take a dive into content and subcultures that you wouldn’t normally associate with. Because ultimately when it comes to understanding culture, it doesn’t matter if you like it, it just matters if other people like it. And turns out a lot of people really do like cat videos.
Words by James Manning