Yesterday was just like any other day, I was sitting in my room, scrolling through my TikTok For You page when I came across this one video from user @maevemcc2:
The TikTok took me back to three weeks ago when I was struggling with Quantum Geographic Information System (QGIS) for my information visualization assignment, in which I had to make a map visualizing a given dataset, so, sort of like the person in the video above.
So, what is the significance of this 13-second video?
First of all, never in my life had I expected myself to find such content on social media funny and relatable. Second of all, I have once come across a tweet that said something along the lines of if a TikTok made you laugh, the comment section must have had you gasping for air. Apart from the relatable comments that made me feel better about my terrible mapping skills and frustration with QGIS, most users, like myself, are fascinated by the eerily specific algorithm of TikTok. “Cannot believe I made it to GIS TikTok I regret nothing about this invasive algorithm”, said one user. “This really is the for YOU page lmao”, added another.
The For YOU page
TikTok is well-known for its eerily accurate algorithm, in fact, it is this AI-driven hyper-individualized algorithm that partly accounts for the platform’s global success. The content recommended to users on their feed called the For You page is based on their watch and re-watch history, likes, shares, comments, and post-viewing actions (Feldkamp, 2021). In “The TikTok algorithm knew my sexuality better than I did”, a writer on Repeller wrote about how her For You page brought to her attention the aspects of herself that she hadn’t appreciated enough before, and that includes queer femmes and bisexuality (McGowan, 2020). As an active TikTok user, this experience is something that I have definitely lived through. Based on just a few clicks and likes, TikTok can curate a feed that does not only represent you as a person but also illuminates those parts of your life that haven’t been fully embraced yet. For me, it’s QGIS and the assignment that I hadn’t given a single thought about after clicking that “Submit” button on Brightspace three weeks ago. While having your feed curated perfectly to your taste is an almost universal TikTok experience, what struck me as odd in this #GISTok situation is that I absolutely do not remember coming across any other video that is remotely related to geospatial analysis on the site. What exactly is going on here?
Privacy in the digital age: A losing battle
The way TikTok seems to know its users so well, while fascinating, raises concerns about the issue of digital privacy. First of all, TikTok’s data collection might even stretch beyond the boundaries of the platform. To log into TikTok, apart from using phone/email, users have the option of doing it via their Facebook, Apple, Gmail, or Twitter accounts. And on the platform, a lot of users have their Instagram or Twitter connected on their profiles. Thus, there are many ways for TikTok to gain some insights into our inner lives.
“The file recorded all my actions in the app and time-stamped them. It also knew my device type and screen resolution, telephone operator, operating system, IP address, and another device identification code (different from the one I provided in my request.(Coluccini, 2021)
TikTok is fun, but at what costs?
A “chance” encounter with GIS on TikTok has brought me to a reflection on its intrusive algorithm. The never-ending issue of digital privacy has driven many of us into some kind of learned helplessness: Agreeing to all terms of conditions, accepting all cookies, and basically ignoring all the red flags flying around not only TikTok but also other social media platforms.
Coluccini, R. (January 21, 2021). TikTok is Watching You – Even If You Don’t Have an Account. https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgqbmk/tiktok-data-collection
Feldkamp, J. The Rise of TikTok: The Evolution of a Social Media Platform During COVID-19. In Digital Responses to Covid-19: Digital Innovation, Transformation, and Entrepreneurship During Pandemic Outbreaks. Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-66611-8
MacGowan, A. (2020). The TikTok Algorithm Knew My Sexuality Better than I Did. Repeller. https://repeller.com/tiktok-algorithm-bisexual/