Getting into TikTok the hard way, busy human edition

20 Sep 2022
11 minutes

Okay, uhm… yeah. I guess we have to talk about TikTok. I can do that on easy mode and turn this article into a litany of ways TikTok is worse than Facebook and Instagram combined. But I could also try spending my keystrokes on something constructive. And so it happens that I figured out a hard yet somewhat productive way of extracting value out of TikTok and I feel like sharing it here.

For full transparency - yup, I don’t like TikTok. Listing the reasons why I find this app universally bad could have taken thousands of words. But I am just a random guy on the internet and my opinion doesn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong, TikTok is interesting in many ways. It’s still growing, just like Facebook in the early 2010s. Fascinating things happen on this platform right here, right now. I like observing projects in this particular phase of growth.

Once the phase of organic growth ends, platforms are just a few days away from becoming annoying at the price of more aggressive growth. That’s where unpaid organic traffic declines in favor of sponsored content and more ads in unexpected places. I saw numerous platforms going through the same cycle over and over again. TikTok is no exception.

However, I cannot stand TikTok entirely in its current iteration. There are political and psychological implications that make this app scary. Their mobile client is a pathetic collection of all dark patterns you can put inside a smartphone app. Their algorithm, apart from making the rich richer, is heavily overhyped. TikTok is just another video platform with a disgusting frontend, built by a very untrustworthy entity.

Call me an old man yelling at clouds, but don’t say I never tried getting to know what I despise.

But we’re not here for a cheap hatefest. There are ways TikTok can be made usable, more interesting and less disrespectful to human brain. But the problem is, all of them are counterintuitive and require effort, which is far from what the app promotes. We live in stupid times when even a stupid entertainment app has to be treated like a ticking bomb or it starts sucking the air out of society.

So if you’re a nerd like me and you want to catch up with your younger cousins while still maintaining your sanity, try the following. Be wary though, this isn’t a proven list of battle-tested hacks. At its current form TikTok is broken by design and you can only do as much to alleviate its pain points. And I’m cynical enough to assume it won’t get any better.

Anyway, here goes.

Consider using a VPN before signing up

TikTok treats every signal as a meaningful signal. Even worse, TikTok uses all of the signals it receives to make assumptions about you. The problem is, your tools to challenge those assumptions are very limited. Think cleaning your toilet with a dry toothbrush.

Anyway, one of TikTok’s assumptions is that being located in Poland I’ll be interested in seeing content made in Poland. And I’m one of few non-English speakers on the internet that produces tons of content in English and barely uses their native language at all. Very little first-party knowledge of significance is produced in my native language. Whenever I can, I escape the Polish internet to learn new things before anyone thinks of translating them. Knowing things sooner than others is a competitive advantage.

Sadly, it works in a similar fashion from the creator’s side. I can have international friends liking my videos but the statistics make it clear: my videos struggle to leave my country. It’s always the same mix: 90% of my viewership is my fellows and 10% is an arbitrary list of other countries that often don’t speak the language of the content I produce. Viewership numbers are empty metrics that could as well be generated at random.

Knowing all of the above I should have signed up for TikTok via a VPN server from some English speaking country. While it wouldn’t magically solve all of the problems, it would definitely trip the TikTok algorithm to waste less of my scrolling time.

If you, just like me, would like to escape the hell of low-quality content made by your fellows, or for any reason don’t want TikTok to assume anything based on your location, consider using a VPN before signing up. Maybe keep your VPN on every time you use TikTok at all.

Give only as much privilege as needed

Let me repeat - TikTok treats everything as a meaningful signal. Including your app settings and any data you voluntarily provide to the app.

And you definitely aren’t under any obligation to provide any of the data this app asks for. If you don’t want notifications, don’t turn them on. If you see no point uploading your contact list, don’t do it.

Be warned that the app will get annoying any time you dare having your own opinion. You will see prompts to upload your contact list even though you already said ‘no’. And if you want to disable app notifications, the app will insult your intelligence by making you answer ‘maybe later’ instead of good old “no”.

I’m not even saying you should maintain some standards about your own online privacy (narrator: yes, you should). But you want TikTok to be a little better at serving you interesting content. Starving it off data points to make assumptions about you can be a way to go.

…and assume TikTok already knows you exist

You can go to any length to minimize the smell of yours you leave on TikTok, but let me remind you that it might not matter at all. Just like Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and many other social media sites, TikTok nags every user to upload their contact list. Assume someone you know already did that.

As of now I’m not aware of any way of restricting your data from being uploaded by others. But you should be aware of it. Facebook did that. TikTok repeats the same playbook.

Bring a specific interest and use search function

That is the most important hint on this list.

If you arrive on TikTok with no specific idea what you want to see there, the algorithm will present you with tons of random stuff in hope something eventually catches your eye. You are supposed to scroll through hundreds of videos, hit ‘like’ on some of them, and the algorithm should present you with more tailored content over time.

TikTok has an option called ‘Not interested in this content’, which is obviously hidden from plain sight (tap and hold on the video to reveal it). But using it still doesn’t guarantee anything. We are dealing with a machine that isn’t optimized for viewer satisfaction but for increasing viewership time in any way possible.

Don’t use the ‘For you’ page if you don’t know what you want to watch. Have a specific interest on your mind and use the search function to find relevant videos to interact with.

Yes, the search engine on TikTok isn’t great. Its non-prominent place in the app is no coincidence. But it’s the only area in the whole app that offers some sort of control over the experience.

If you ever decide to waste time on the ‘For you’ page, you’ll at least have fed the algorithm with legitimately useful data points about what you want to watch. Sadly, one can only hope it actually makes the scrolling experience any better.

Use TikTok on the desktop if at all. Seriously.

Thank goodness, TikTok is not a mobile-only app. They offer a plain ol’ browser-based client as well.

Most surprisingly, the desktop version of TikTok is… boring. And that’s a positive. Its user interface is simple. If you ever used YouTube, Twitch or Twitter, TikTok on your computer will look very familiar.

And most importantly, having a web browser at your disposal, you can strip the app off certain undesirable behaviors, such as autoplaying each and every video within your sight. Not to mention that you have a choice on where you run your web browser - it could be your personal computer, virtual machine or a separate isolated environment if you’re this kind of paranoic.

Have friends that share videos with you

Well, that’s self-explanatory enough. Thank your friends for doing the hard work of scrolling and curating the content for you. Every time someone drops something in your inbox, you save time by not having to search for it yourself or scroll the ‘For you’ page to find it. Love your friends.

Follow a lot of accounts

Follow enough accounts so that you always have something to watch without having to check the ‘For you’ page. If you need 500 accounts to achieve that, follow 500 accounts. If you’re deemed to waste time on TikTok, at least waste it on your own terms and watch stuff that is legitimately interesting to you.

That is not a typical way I use social media, but in case of TikTok and their aversion to users having control over what they want to see, this is the way to go.

And if you scroll that damn ‘For you’ page, maintain standards

Look, I am not trying to tell you how to live your life and what you should or should not do with your time. But hear me out.

Whenever I would scroll through the ‘For you’ page, I gave full attention to videos below certain number of likes / followers. My general belief is that it is small passionate creators who deserve all the love and attention online. I do not apply this exclusively to TikTok. I follow this principle on YouTube, Twitch and anywhere else as well.

I would skip each and any video that was already swimming in likes and comments because I didn’t want the algorithm to feed me with more of all that popular bullshit recycling the same ideas. I tried to notice trends and avoid interacting with them as soon as I saw them. Sadly, the side effect of that policy was that I would hit the ‘bottom’ of the video feed - the app would need a few seconds to fetch more videos.

I’m generally allergic to seeing the same type of content over and over again and that applies to every platform (exceptions are rare, but do happen). Any time I saw TikTok throwing the same dumb meme in front of my eyeballs, I’d want to let the algorithm know I was not interested in it. Scroll, scroll, scroll.

You don’t have to follow anything I said above. But develop some standards on your own. Be picky about your likes, because TikTok can and will utilize them in the future. You don’t eat chocolate for breakfast, lunch and supper. TikTok might feed you with same types of content over and over again if you let them know it works for you.

Go beyond likes. Interact with creators, not content

In the grand scheme of things, contrary to what TikTok wants you to believe, hitting ‘like’ on any content is a lazy and mostly meaningless way of interacting with it. It isn’t even clear how much influence a single like has on the algorithm compared to other behaviors. While getting a like is definitely better than getting no likes, as a creator I see no value in receiving likes from empty accounts that will never see me again. Any fool can post anything on this platform and get a droplet of recognition.

As a viewer, I did it differently.

If I stopped at a specific video, I tried to go beyond a simple like. I would try to drop a comment and check if the creator exists outside of TikTok. It is usually possible with artists of any kind (they use TikTok like another content distribution channel) and virtually impossible with people who don’t produce anything outside TikTok. The thing is, I seek interactions with people rather than content because content isn’t produced out of thin air. There is a human behind it.

That doesn’t mean I would comment and follow each and every creator. I tried my best to make my interactions with TikTok videos deliberate and meaningful, and most importantly, I’d try to get to know the human behind them. After all, TikTok would be worthless without people who do it for pure fun rather than profit. Someone has to be poor if someone else is supposed to be rich.

Aaaand… profit?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I’ll be honest with you. Following the advice above made TikTok feel more like other platforms I am used to. But it never solved any inherent problems I had with it.

For a lightweight entertainment app, TikTok offers too little control over the experience. And I have too much attention span to waste it on 5-second videos. That is not my type of entertainment.

I could ignore the fact it’s in fact a nicely designed Chinese spyware and all the political implications of that fact. But I cannot ignore everything else, from addiction-fuelling psychological tricks to the pure annoyance of the whole experience on mobile.

But I tried. And if you’re feeling adventurous, well, you’re a reasonable human being and you’re the one who knows best what to do with your life. I wish you luck.