Short answer: maybe?
As a relatively new user of the social media video app TikTok, I’m impressed with the app’s ability to pinpoint the exact style of content that I want to see. Based on the user’s activity, the infamousTikTokalgorithm quickly curates a “For You” page consisting of videos similar to those with which one interacts.
Unlike other social media websites, such as Instagram or Facebook, the main page is not exclusive to creators that the user follows, allowing them to discover more and more creators and content each time the app is used. This formula makes for a positively addictive experience.
How Does the "For You Page" Work?
Naturally, I was skeptical, but within 12 hours of making an account and interacting with specific hashtags, TikTok was able to curate a delicate ecosystem of videos truly for me.
How does this work? How have the creators of this managed to crack the code for individualizing the entire population of TikTok’s user’s experience?
According to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report and video titled “How TikTok’s Algorithm Figures You Out,” the app is, in so many words, watching you. WSJ conducted an experiment in which they created “over 100 automated accounts” and gave each account a birthdate, an IP address, and varied interests.
However, WSJ reports that their “users” never input their interests into the app. Rather, the “users” expressed their likes and dislikes by scrolling past or lingering on specific videos, and even this vague behavior is tracked by theTikTokalgorithm. For some “users,” the algorithm curated a perfected recommendation engine within two hours or less (Wall Street Journal, YouTube).
Is the Algorithm Racist?
So, what does this have to do withrace? In some corners of the app, there is a great deal of discourse regarding whether or not the algorithm is racist, and there is conflicting evidence depending on how it's interpreted.
When Wall Street Journal conducted its TikTok experiment, new users started out “in the mainstream” of videos before moving towards the more niche branches of content (Wall Street Journal, YouTube). These mainstream videos are typically harmless, surface-level content with millions of views, as they are meant to appeal to the most common denominator.
It’s worth mentioning that these videos often feature white, cis-gendered people who adhere to the modern, Western beauty standard. As TikTok susses out a user’s interests, though, this main feed reflects them.
Potentially Harmful TikTok Trends
The 2022 new year brought a new trend for TikTok creators to try: one participated by showing off a rotation of angles of their face to the song "Love You So" by The King Kahn & BBQ Show. This trend has been demonized by some as a form of body-checking, a harmful practice meant to outline a particular beauty standard—a strong, straight jawline in this case—and see where the creator falls.
I’ve seen this trend on my own “For You Page,” but in my experience, the creator’s utilizing it have been people of color and plus-size people directly calling out its harmful potential and combating it by glorifying their own features. I’ve seen videos of this trend with captions such as “all my profiles: double chin edition” (@mnkybrains on TikTok), which provide representation and inspiration for viewers, ultimately reforming the narrative entirely.
Thus, when I see the debate on ‘body checking,’ or the wider conversation regarding TikTok videos and creators “all looking the same,” I’m tempted to wonder what content a user likes and interacts with in order to curate such a eurocentric feed.
Is the algorithm racist? Or is it shockingly and pinpointedly accurate?
Emma [@emma9177] .” [N]o because my side profile is fucking horrific[.] [I]ts giving bowling ball[.]” TikTok, 2022.
Smith, Ben. "How TikTok Reads Your Mind."The New York Times, Dec. 2021,
Wall Street Journal.How TikTok's Algorithm Figures You Out |. , YouTube, 2021.
[@mnkybrains]. [I] have yet to see my plus size ladies represented in this trend[.]#fyp#slay#purr.” TikTok, 2022.