For the last two years, I have downloaded and played with TikTok every few months to track its progress, but I never found it seriously engaging beyond the occasional Arnold Schwarzenegger video.
This, however, has changed.
The ByteDance-owned app has very decisively turned a corner in the last few months, and has clearly graduated to being an important new type of network with a strong social economy and real staying power.
Having spent significantly more time with the app in the last few weeks, it is clear to me that TikTok has achieved a fascinating set of product and design innovations that are disruptive and powerful, and that will meaningfully inform social networks going forward.
Here are 10 of TIkTok’s most important product and design innovations.
1. Consumption-First Onboarding
If the last generation of social products was about making a grand entrance and finding your friends, with TikTok people get to watch the party to get a sense of the room before hitting the metaphorical dance floor.
Where historically the standard practice for joining a new social network included connecting to people and setting up an identity, TikTok is engineered for a world where almost everyone sees that process as a cost, and it takes a decidedly different approach: Upon downloading the app, users start viewing content immediately, without having to create an account.
This is a smart move, and, I believe, a direction that more social products will take in the future, for two reasons. First, people have account and identity fatigue. Asking people to sign up for yet another account in 2020 is simply too much friction and deters many prospective users from even trying a new service.
Second, and perhaps more important, in today’s more privacy- and identity-sensitive culture, people are hyper-aware of how they present themselves in new contexts. Focusing onboarding on how others use a product allows potential users to understand the experience before they decide how they might want to express themselves and be seen by others.
It is clear from the product design just how in tune with identity friction TikTok really is. Even when a user does ultimately set up an account in order to like a post or follow a person, the team has engineered the process to be as simple as possible, collecting only a birthdate, an email address and a password, while deferring things like selecting a profile picture or setting a username for everyone but the most motivated users.
2. Designing for the Advantage of an Implicitly Driven Feed Ranking vs. an Explicit Connection Model
Tiktok is clearly designed around a deep implicit ranking system—in other words, it infers which content a user might want to see by analyzing the user’s site behavior—rather than by relying on explicit ranking signals, which take into account a user’s declared preferences.
Reliance on implicit signals isn’t just a natural by-product of the fact that the app avoids gathering information on users’ preferences initially to make it easier to sign up. The bias toward real implicit signals is deeply built into the product framework because it offers a huge advantage in serving users the most relevant content.
The core interaction pattern of the app is that users are fed one video at a time to watch (almost purely at the discretion of the service), and then they swipe away when they want to move to the next video. This one-at-a-time video viewing experience makes it very easy for TikTok to precisely measure what users are really engaging with and how deeply they engage, as opposed to relying upon whom people choose to follow or like.
Beyond the implicit viewership data, the design of the TikTok interface makes it clear that it explicitly uses likes and follows, above and beyond giving feedback, to rank videos. The fact that a user can follow someone new directly from that person’s video without clicking through to their profile highlights the fact that in the TikTok world, “follow” is as much a superlike for ranking as it is anything else.
It is pretty clear that in the future designing user interfaces with the explicit intention of yielding better implicit data for content ranking is going to be standard practice. What people do is far more accurate than what they say they do, and clean data is the holy grail of ranking.
3. The Benefits of a Single Integrated Feed vs. Distinct ‘Spaces’
In a product like Instagram, users see a feed of content from creators they are connected to, and then a separate “Discover” tab suggests new content and people.
In TikTok, the creators that users follow and TikTok’s algorithmic suggestions are all mixed together. Technically, you can choose to only look at feeds of the people you are connected to, but the default is an integrated feed.
This sounds like a minor distinction, but it is a much better design decision for a few reasons. First, it gives TikTok the latitude to show you exactly what it thinks you will like the most at all times, rather than limiting the feed to showing you connected or new people. This gives TikTok the freedom to fully leverage its data to show you the content it believes you will like the most without restriction, and it also gives TikTok a lot of power to choose which videos and people get massive distribution (more on that later).
Second, it makes the product seem more integrated and seamless for the user. I have always resisted the idea of social products having different spaces for different types of content, rather than offering a tuned, integrated experience. My default feed in Instagram is mostly full of well-composed pictures of friends and family, and my Discover feed is surfing, skiing and models. I like both feeds, but there is real product dissonance for me. Choosing to look at Discover is visually appealing, but leaves me feeling empty as a human. But my main feed has the inverse problem: It feels like home, but it isn’t as fun. TikTok demonstrates how powerful an integrated model can be.
4. Designing for Truly Zero-Cost Content Consumption
There has been a long march in social media toward eliminating all physical and cognitive friction to consuming more media. If you want to think about how and why this works as a design consideration, imagine being dead tired on a long bus ride home after a very long day of work and deciding what to look at. In this state, you aren’t watching TED Talks. You want to consume the easiest thing and have your brain in the lowest possible energy state.
Feeds of content that you can scroll through are a great example of this design pattern. You don’t have to click; in theory you just keep scrolling. But the problem with feeds is that they have different types of content in them, and understanding that content and choosing what to dwell on or skip can be stressful. Seeing comments and trying to decide if you should read them, or even respond, takes energy.
Stories, it turns out, are even better. Making decisions about scrolling might be hard, but stories that auto-advance if you do nothing, or stories you can tap-tap through, require even less energy to consume. The problem with stories is that they still force the viewer to understand the image, choose when to click to advance, and deal with the cognitive load of switches between still images, video and even text (god forbid).
TikTok is darn close to zero work to consume. Your only option is to skip a thing when you get bored of it. Otherwise, you just watch algorithmically sorted video in predictable one-minute intervals. The lack of choice is the secret to low-friction consumption, and makes it the default bunch of calories people want to consume when they are hungry.
It remains to be seen how people will come up with new formats of media that require even less effort to consume. I am sure that someday someone will.
5. Explicit Separation of Consumption and Production
Most social products have been designed around the democratic ideal that everyone should be both a consumer and producer. In practice, however, a minority of users usually drive production on most networks.
Historically, social products have tried to fight this, working hard to encourage all users to post. TikTok seems to deeply embrace the reality that a minority of creators will produce all the content that matters.
The fact that it embraces that reality means that the app doesn’t create stress for the majority of users by trying to convince them to post when they don’t want to. It also leaves TikTok free to make tools for the people who want to create far more complicated and nuanced posts than would ever fly for the average user.
The fact that TikTok acknowledges this concept allows it to create better tools for invested producers, and to stop nagging and confusing everyone else.
6. Making Production a Fun Social Game vs. a Single-Player ‘Chore’
For those who choose to produce TikTok content, making the videos is set up to be a fun, social experience that feels like a game rather than a solo chore.
I’m not deeply connected to TikTok creators, but from what I hear, high school kids spend hours working and playing together to create fun content. The theory goes that many would create TikTok content for themselves, even if no one was watching.
Contrast this social, fun creation experience with the reality of Instagram, which is a single-player game. Mind you, in the early days of Instagram, when using filters to edit photos was still novel, it was a very fun single-player experience. But it was fundamentally solitary rather than social.
The lesson is that feedback from others can be a powerful motivator across all social products, but there is a huge advantage if the creation process itself is also joyful and social.
7. Embracing Memes to Drive Creator Onboarding
The biggest challenge with TikTok is that the one-minute video format is really hard to get started in. Compared with a single image or story, the barrier to entry to start creating is very high, and people have to assume that they won’t get any feedback on their posts when they start, since there isn’t a traditional social network process of following real friends.
The fact that creation can be social and fun helps, but what really makes onboarding new creators possible are the easy-to-follow memes people riff on, with different videos played with the same dialogue or song clip over and over.
Promoting these memes for creators is pretty brilliant on the part of TikTok, because it makes space for an activity that is viewed negatively elsewhere. On other social networks, copying someone else’s video or image and slightly changing it might be looked down upon or considered plagiarism. But copying is core to how humans behave and learn.
By promoting memes and celebrating copying, TikTok makes it easy and fun for people to get started creating, even if no one is watching.
Look for more social products to adopt this design pattern, and to break away from the negative social dynamics around people “ripping each other off.”
8. Making Production Success a Slightly More Inclusive and Open Playing Field
There was a moment in Hollywood when silent films were on the way out and talking films were taking over. As the mythology goes, there was huge turnover among film actors because delivering lines required new and different skills.
TikTok feels like a version of that playing out for the digital age.
One of the problems with a lot of social media is that because it is identity-centric, the social game that plays out digitally mirrors the social game of reality, where wealth and physical attractiveness win. The biggest influencers are the most beautiful and richest people, because they typically produce the best images and have the biggest clout.
TikTok’s format of videos shakes up that formula, because the most beautiful and richest people don’t necessarily produce great video content.
That isn’t to say attractiveness isn’t still a factor, but the fact that TikTok videos require skill to create compared with Instagram or Snapchat reshapes which people can and do win attention, and makes it seem like a game that different kinds of people can succeed at.
But the key is that the format on TikTok is different enough from what has gone before, and requires different enough skills, so that it creates the appearance of opportunities for new success by people who were locked out of older social media games.
This isn’t just about creating new influencers from scratch. The real art is to create a format where second-class influencers, who have reach on other platforms but are a rung below the biggest stars, see an angle to invest and win in the new medium.
This is what TikTok has nailed. It has created a new form of media that encourages everyone to participate again, but it uniquely caters to the midrange of influencers who see an opening to expand their audience.
Expect more networks to focus on designing media experiences that open up the playing field of social media fame and success, but uniquely cater to second-tier influencers looking to break out.
9. Using Well-Targeted Random Rewards to Encourage Participation
Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of TikTok is that the algorithm grants random lottery-style rewards to almost anyone creating content.
In an explicit follower model, the rich will always win. People like Beyoncé and The Rock will always get the most distribution, because the greatest number of people explicitly choose to follow them. On the other end of the spectrum, getting attention is insanely hard. This, sadly, is very much how our traditional physical economy tends to work. The rich do get richer.
TikTok, however, seems to embrace a random lottery-style reward of attention, where some random teenager with no following all of a sudden has one video blow up out of nowhere.
This is very smart. People love lotteries. It is a huge encouragement to keep playing if you hear secondhand or thirdhand about someone who out of the blue had a single video make them “TikTok famous,” with thousands or tens of thousands of followers.
My cynical but impressed take is that TikTok is running a well-designed social lottery. Everyone keeps working and producing because there is some hope that the algorithm will choose someone for a moment of fame, as opposed to systems where the rich just keep getting richer and the poor have no way of breaking out.
Look for more networks to think more carefully about how they use distribution and promotion as random rewards to drive engagement.
10. Embracing the ‘Amateur’ Act as a Modern Form of Privacy
If you look at the porn industry over the last several years, there have been two major transitions. First, there was a shift from mass media stars to more niche internet influencers. Now, we are seeing internet influencers replaced by the rise of amateur porn, where the notion of seeing “real people” lures viewers, despite the fact that it is all carefully produced.
TikTok is a great example of the extension of this aesthetic into the mainstream. The images and content are all framed as voyeuristic peeps into the lives of real people being their authentic selves.
As the world of deepfakes and cheap high production continues to grow, it makes sense to me that the seeming authenticity that TikTok packages and sells as a commodity will continue to appeal to viewers. People will be obsessed with what unique authenticity actually looks like, rather than with an overproduced and overstylized aesthetic.
The key, of course, is to remember that just as “amateur” porn isn’t really amateur, the authenticity on TikTok is also, in most cases, produced through the medium. It is an act, and behind that act there are real people and real lives. The amateur “act” in this sense actually is a form of real privacy for real people, who protect themselves by creating internet characters they can use for fun, attention and influence separate from their real identity.
For a long time, I have looked at social media and seen a clear trajectory away from real friends and toward “professional” friends. My theory has always been that professional friends are funnier, more beautiful and more talented than real friends and will over time win the attention wars.
TikTok makes me think, however, that maybe that isn’t the whole story. Maybe part of the story is a future where social media again becomes media, and as a consumer it is less about following people and relationships than it is about voyeuristically experiencing humanity as a whole.
Maybe the production of content will move away from the idea of creating a following and toward the idea of participating in memes and having fun, with some form of random attention reward attached.
Perhaps the future isn’t as much about the brands of influencers and characters as it is just about the content.
Regardless of what happens, what should be clear is that some core design patterns around media are shifting, and some of the product techniques TikTok has pioneered will start showing up over and over in the years to come.