How TikTok Hacks Creators

Algorithms aren't just hacking our viewing habits, they're hacking creation.

There’s a lot of talk about how TikTok serves you the exact content that you need. I was on the app for like five minutes before it started showing me professors making jokes about academia and pirate thirst traps.

A lot of words have been spent talking about how platforms hook the consumers of content because we are all consumers of content. But platforms can’t hook you if they have nothing to hook you with. No one consumes the algorithm, we consume the content. And no one has been talking about how platforms, and their algorithms, hack creators.

I uploaded my first YouTube video in 2007, and I did it because I’m a nerd and love media and it doesn’t take much for me to get obsessed with something. But nowadays, people upload content knowing full well that one of the best ways to gather credibility, reputation, and income is to build an audience online. People upload videos to YouTube and pictures to Instagram because that’s where the audience is.

That’s no use if you’re Byte or Triller or Lasso. How do you get creators to make stuff on your platform?

Well, I’ve noticed some things that work on me, and also some things TikTok is almost certainly doing. And we should be paying attention to it, because the future

As a creator, I’ve got a list. This list is not meant to be a guide for platforms, I think they all know these things. It’s meant to be information for the rest of us, whether we make stuff or just like watching it. What are these platforms doing to get us to create:

1. Reward Creation

Many TikTokers report that one of their first four or five videos goes pretty viral. This might not be millions of views, but if you have five videos, and one has 5000 while the others have 50, that makes you think, “How do I make that happen again?” or even “How do I make on that gets even bigger than that?”

Meanwhile on YouTube, it’s pretty common to make 50 videos on a channel and get the same 300 views on every video forever. YouTube has fewer impressions to throw around (because content is longer and clicking on something is a much more substantial action than flipping to the next TikTok.)

2. Do it Unpredictably

Once you have someone making stuff, you need to reward them every once in a while so they don’t give up. But you can’t do it predictably, and you should also tie it to how well audience responds to that video. Remember, platforms don’t just want to encourage you to make stuff, they want to encourage you to make good stuff.

Psychologists (and people who run casinos) know that random, unpredictable rewards are what keep people engaging in a behavior. So toss out those rewards, and people will keep making things.

3. Keep them Hooked

If creators stop making things, give them a boost the next time they come back. Or maybe even take one of their existing pieces of content and give it some juice. Let them know that there is still audience there for them, if only they’ll put a little energy in.

4. Make it Cheap to Make Stuff

As wild as this is, YouTube videos are now relatively high budget. Most use DSLRs, lights, maybe even some graphics. They’re edited on computers and tend to be pretty long, which means you have to put more time into creating the thing. Editing on a phone (even if it is, trust me, a pain in the fucking ass sometimes) is as cheap as it gets.

5. Make it Easy to Make Good Stuff

Cheap and easy (I’ll say, for the 40th time) are not the same. Making it easy to create means giving people tools. Filters, sounds, timers, and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, a remix culture. TikTok would suck if there was drama every time someone stole someone else’s joke. By making the ability to use someone else’s sound, or duet / stitch their video, TikTok makes remix culture the default. It devalues creation, of course (there are lots of TikToks that are just people lip-syncing to other people’s jokes that have more views than the original joke, for example.) But they made it easier for people to create, and that makes it so more people create.

6. Spread the Love

Now, we know about Addison and Charli, and there are a handful of other creators with, like 90 million followers on TikTok. But I’d wager that there are thousands of creators with more than a million followers and tens of thousands with more than 100,000. Superstars are good for building your brand (Charli gets to be in a superbowl ad, and then people are talking about the platform more.) But tens of thousands of creators making some money, and spending a lot of time creating for their niche, that’s how you make a platform that feels worth a viewer’s time.

7. Get People Paid

This isn’t actually as important as you might think it would be. But it does help if there is an economic ecosystem around content. My hope would be is that platforms want the people creating on their platforms to build a good, strong living for themselves. But, honestly, just showing people that their work on a platform makes them money allows them to rationalize the time they spend creating, and decreases the odds that they will wash out in any given month.

In Short

Make it easy to make. Help audiences find great content. And help creators make money once just having an audience isn’t enough to keep them going anymore.

Is This Bad?

No, it’s not, it’s just something to be aware of. Making stuff for an audience is often really wonderful. No one would even think twice about this if TikTok were hacking the youth to learn how to play violin or do math equations. Pleasing an audience is a skill that can be honed, and one that has all kinds of benefits. It helps you understand other people, communicate more effectively, and be more confident.

Right now (thought I imagine this will change) Apple’s Screen Time Monitor classifies TikTok as “Creativity” and not “Social Networking.” For the people who spend most of that time creating, I think that’s actually a good thing.

Of course, we also have to come to terms with the reality that the value of that creation is mostly being captured by a very large company rather than by the people making the stuff. If TikTok is going to play a robust role in the passion economy, we need more tools for TikTokers, both on-app and off to capture the value they create.