“I’m going to open TikTok and watch just one video,” said no one ever. If you’re the type to open TikTok’s app at all, odds are you fell down a bit of a rabbit hole, watching at least a handful of short videos tailored specifically to your interests and sense of humor. This is on purpose. TikTok’s algorithm is finely tuned to keep you watching for as long as possible. Scroll, watch, like, repeat.
Many of TikTok’s 1.7 billion users are fine with this. Sure, TikTok may have a fraught history with hate speech. And also disinformation. And also hasn’t been great about enforcing its own political advertising rules. And maybe also isn’t always upfront about third-party companies it shares your data with. (Not a fan of that either? Sign our petition!) But, when it comes to TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, it’s the suggestions that keep many users coming back. Some even want better suggestions — hoping the app targets their interests even more. But how exactly can you change the algorithm to better reflect your interests? What if you want to reset it altogether?
First, it helps to understand what makes TikTok’s algorithm tick. TikTok is pretty secretive about the specifics of its algorithm so competitors like Instagram or YouTube can’t copy it outright. Still, researchers are constantly examining the company’s algorithms.
One such researcher is Salvatore Romano of AI Forensics, the Europe-based nonprofit that studies hard-to-decipher algorithms. The group has published multiple investigations looking into TikTok’s algorithm and have learned quite a bit. “TikTok has a few algorithms, not just one, but the ‘For You’ page’s algorithm is its most-used,” says Salvatore. “When you first sign up, TikTok starts suggesting general viral videos and watches how you interact with them to gather feedback. For example, if you like or share a video, if you look for more info about a creator or a song in a video. And, most importantly, if you watch a specific video twice. TikTok’s goal is to keep you on the service for as long as possible, so re-watching a video is very informative to TikTok.”
Salvatore mentions other data points are used too. TikTok takes into consideration other users like you and what they’ve been watching. This practice is known as collaborative filtering and it’s used by a lot of other platforms, like dating apps. On TikTok, the service tracks your watch time down to the millisecond, which tells the company if you really like a video or just kind of like it. “As you use the app, you don’t know the amount of time you tend to spend on a video you like,” says Salvatore, “but TikTok does.”
Back in March, TikTok introduced an option to “refresh” your feed and start fresh. In theory, hitting refresh on your TikTok algorithm gets rid of old recommendations and makes way for new interactions to power your list of suggested videos. Salvatore says this only sort of works. “First off, the ‘refresh’ feature doesn’t delete any data about you from TikTok servers,” says Salvatore. “Instead, it’s serving fresh recommendations to you for a certain period of time. It’s less a fresh start and more of a ‘let’s cool it on these video topics for a while and try some new topics. And then, after some time, come back to the old stuff you used to like.’” Salvatore stresses the fact that, because TikTok isn’t deleting data about you, it can use your old preferences and new preferences to serve up content related to both.
So how do you actually start fresh or tailor your TikTok algorithm to your needs or both? Salvatore offers two solutions. One easy and one slightly harder.
The easy answer: actively seek out content related to different topics. “If you look for a keyword or hashtag and engage with videos on that topic, that’s a great way to introduce something new to your algorithmic diet,” says Salvatore.
And then there’s the harder answer: create a whole new account. “Instead of re-training your current algorithm, having multiple accounts is one of the best ways to control personalization,” says Salvatore. “These personalized feeds can be bubbles and it’s tough seeing outside one’s bubble, but there’s no better way to experience a true fresh start.”
You Can Change Your TikTok Algorithm, But Not In The Way You Think
Written By: Xavier Harding
Edited By: Audrey Hingle, Kevin Zawacki, Xavier Harding
Art By: Shannon Zepeda