TikTok’s recommendation algorithms make it surprisingly easy to get famous

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In the hours after she shared this makeup experiment, it was shown to hundreds of thousands of people on their “For You” pages, the lifeblood of TikTok. It wasn’t obvious to her why this particular post was suddenly so visible, except that TikTok’s recommendation algorithms had made it so.  

Making it big

Since TikTok launched in China in 2016, it has become one of the most engaging and fastest-growing social media platforms in the world. It’s been downloaded more than 2.6 billion times globally and has 100 million users in the US. And the unique way it finds and serves up content is a big part of its appeal. 

The “For You” page is what most TikTok creators think makes the app different from other social media platforms, because anyone can get famous there. Good content is rewarded faster, supercharged by the algorithms that show users an endless stream of videos tailored to their tastes. While other social media platforms favor viral content with mass appeal, TikTok’s algorithms have proved especially adept at plugging creators into niche communities that share interests, hobbies, or a particular identity. 

A video’s chances of ending up on your “For You” page are determined by, among other things, the captions, sounds, and hashtags on it. And as with any other social media platform, what TikTok chooses to show you is based on how you use the app—which videos you’ve liked, what content you create. The difference is that TikTok is better at it. 

For Karpelman, TikTok has allowed her to connect with strangers during a difficult and lonely time, but the fame it bestowed on her has brought its own worries.

Already-popular creators do have an easier time getting attention, but TikTok doesn’t take a creator’s following or viral history directly into account when figuring out what content to seed where. That’s why “For You” pages mix viral hits with new videos from unknown creators, some of which have just a few views.