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TikTok is confusing by design

TikTok isn’t the way I want the internet to work, but it’s where the internet is going.

An illustration of a young woman with her head on her creased arms looking at a blank phone lying on the table in front of her. There is a question mark over her head. Aleksei Morozov/Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.

I was trying to find a TikTok video to show my mom when the realization hit me: I am becoming her.

That is to say, I’ve aged out of the intended and desired audience for popular new apps. They’re no longer made with me in mind, and there’s a steeper learning curve that I’m less willing to overcome. Apps used to be intuitive to me and gave me the experience I wanted and expected. TikTok does not. At first, I assumed it’s because I’m past whatever the age threshold is for learning new things, like the boomers singled out in a popular Facebook group for making basic posting mistakes. This sort of thing is suddenly less funny to me.

But maybe it’s not so much that I’m old, but rather I’m old school. TikTok is the ultimate example of how our digital world is shifting from seemingly limitless possibilities and choice — the internet of my formative years — into a controlled experience that’s optimized to know or decide what we want and then deliver it to us. And TikTok is one of the best examples of this change.

TikTok is also one of the most popular apps in the world, so, to be absolutely clear, this is more of a me problem than it is a TikTok one. Younger people are TikTok’s core user base, but the app is not exclusive to them. People of all ages use TikTok just fine. Some find it even easier to use than other social media apps, and they like it more, too. You don’t have to be a digital mobile app native to get TikTok. But I bet that helps a lot.

“I just turned 44,” Aya Karpinska, a Parsons School of Design professor who teaches about the history of the interface, told me. “It’s going to be a bit of a struggle for me to really become fluent in TikTok. I can look at things, but I have not been able to produce the kind of fantastic videos that I see. The media that I grew up with, the way that I was shaped is not responding somehow to TikTok in the way that younger people do. Maybe you feel the same way.”

I pretty much do because my attempt to search for a specific creator’s video resulted in staring at a grid with tiny thumbnails of half-second previews and view counts but no titles, dates, or descriptions. There weren’t any familiar clues that could serve as a guide to finding the information I sought. After several minutes of guess-tapping through them, I gave up.

The passive appeal of TikTok

TikTok is designed around discovering content for you, not giving you a platform to find it for yourself. You open the app to the “For You” page — the stream of videos that TikTok thinks you’ll like — which automatically plays a full-screen vertical video. There’s no way to disable the autoplay. There are your typical engagement icons so you can “like,” bookmark, share, and comment on the video. You can also follow the account it came from. All those options are superimposed onto the video itself, as are the name of the creator and any description of the video they included. When the video ends, it plays again from the beginning.

If you want to see another video, you swipe up and something new appears. You don’t get to choose from a list of related content, nor is there any real order to whatever you’ll get. The videos can be fairly new or months old. But you won’t know either way, because there aren’t any dates on them. If you prefer to be a more active participant in what you watch, you probably won’t get it. But the appeal of TikTok for so many people — and what makes it so addicting — is that unending stream of “for you” content.

While this feels like a relatively new way of using the internet, it’s not a new way of experiencing content.

“When I was growing up, there was an eight o’clock show once a week on the TV ... and we all watched this particular show at this particular time, and we had to wait a week until the next one,” Karpinska said. Networks chose what we watched and when, and then we got VCRs and on-demand and, finally, streaming and binge-watching. TikTok feels a little bit like pre-streaming television, albeit an extremely granular version of it. Instead of, say, CBS airing one show it hopes will appeal to millions of people, TikTok is picking a video to appeal to one user, billions of times over.

“We have information overload and choice overload, and this is a response to that,” said Alec Pollak, EVP of engagement strategy at Area 23, an IPG Health company. “It’s a comfortable space to be in when you don’t have to make choices.”

But if that shift continues, I wonder what the digital (and physical) world will look like when we’re all wearing headsets and our augmented reality is being chosen for us, using AI and algorithms that are even more advanced than what TikTok does now.

Digital UI/UX design goes from mimicking the familiar to being weird

When computers entered the mass market and our homes, their user interfaces had to be designed so that an average person who probably never used a computer before would be able to figure it out quickly, Karpinska explained. Typing commands in computer language was not that. But a graphical user interface, with virtual versions of real objects and functions, was. As the devices and technology have evolved or changed, the interfaces have, too. You used to use a peripheral mouse to place a virtual pointer on an item and select it by clicking a button. With touchscreens, that peripheral can be your actual finger.

When widespread internet access arrived, you had a whole new virtual world within your computer. You could go anywhere, look up anything, and talk to anyone (who had an internet connection). Seemingly limitless choice was part of the internet’s novelty and its appeal, and this was present as soon as you clicked on the browser icon to open your specifically chosen start page.

And when the iPhone came along, the internet became a much more mobile experience, and developers soon figured out how to take full advantage of the device’s capabilities and integrate them into apps. The fact that people carried their phones everywhere, constantly connected to the internet, meant tons more data about them was being generated. Apps could know their users better than ever, which meant they could send them content they were more likely to be interested in. Knowing who people were connected to — thanks to social media — allowed these insights to be even more accurate. Apps also developed a standard look, thanks in part to the platforms that hosted them.

Then TikTok came along and blew a lot of that up. As Wired explained in this article from way back in 2019, TikTok (and Snapchat) “are harder — or at least weirder to use than other apps.” Four years later and with their competitors doing everything possible to mimic them, TikTok’s approach has become the new standard. Part of that standard is aggressively pushing content at you that the app has decided you want to see.

TikTok is classified as a social media app, but it isn’t designed around the social network you’ve curated for yourself. The social side of it is there, sure, but it’s peripheral. TikTok’s center is choosing content for you and featuring that by default. You can “curate” that content to a degree by feeding TikTok as much information as possible about you through your interactions with the app to get the best algorithmically driven For You page possible.

And while TikTok’s not designed to be a search engine, some members of Gen Z apparently have a lot of success using it as one. A 22-year-old told the New York Times that during a recent visit from her family, she found things for them to do in “seconds,” while her fusty old parents waded through “pages of Google search results.” Results may vary, though; as Pollak points out, searching TikTok probably yields better results when TikTok knows more about you.

“It’s a very satisfying search for people who are in it all the time,” he said.

But platforms wouldn’t be doing this if the strategy weren’t so successful. This is the experience users want, or at least they’ve become convinced it’s what they want. It’s been decades since internet access was introduced to the mass market, and the novelty of endless choice has worn off. There’s something to be said for having something or someone else pick what you see and do. Which is how things used to work before the internet, of course, just not with the granularity that’s possible now.

“TikTok’s design appeals to me because it removes decision fatigue,” Angela Zhou, a user experience designer who’s been chronicling her journey into the field on TikTok, said. “You open an app, and you’re immediately given content. You don’t have to make any decisions, other than swiping to reach the next video. I think that appeals a ton to people who are on their phones to unplug.” This includes Zhou, who says she’s increasingly replacing her YouTube and TV diet with TikToks.

Who has control of the devices and apps of the future?

So what will all this look like in the augmented reality future tech companies seem to think we’re heading for, where we wear headsets all the time instead of carrying phones? That possibility may have seemed far off and even ridiculous when it was Mark Zuckerberg’s grand plan, but Apple’s Vision Pro headset reviews were very positive, with many saying it far exceeded their expectations of what was possible. There are still a lot of questions about use cases, affordability, and size that might prevent it from achieving mainstream adoption, but those are also things that can be fixed over time. If so, we’ll have a whole new interface to learn how to use — and probably a new generation that gets it faster than the rest of us — and another design shift to navigate. And, surely, a cultural one.

“Who gets to control what you are seeing of reality? Are you determining it? How much does the person you’re looking at, the house you’re walking past, the person’s desk you’re walking by? Who owns how something is represented?” said Judith Donath, a faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. And there’s no guarantee it will be the user at all, the way things are going.

Pollak is thinking of a near future in which generative AI plays a larger role in figuring out and giving users what they want.

“The idea of a static UI may start to shift in and of itself; if more and more the [user’s] intent is understood, you don’t even have to find where the button is,” he said. “If it knows what you want, it’ll put a big button in front of you.” Those headsets, of course, already know exactly where your eyes are, what they’re looking at, and possibly even how you feel about it.

Maybe generative AI will create a user experience and an interface that adjusts to each user with the same granularity of the content it sends them. It could give everyone what they want, presented the way they understand it best. And then I’ll finally find that TikTok video.

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