Algorithms have been a part of our lives for decades. They are essentially unavoidable to living in the twenty-first century. Let’s briefly remind ourselves what an algorithm is: a set of rules that are followed to problem solve.
As consumers, however, we have come to understand algorithms as a set of rules based on information, we give social media platforms and the internet, and based on these rules we are served content.
The most obvious place we encounter algorithms as consumers is social media. The algorithms on the various social media apps we all engage in are some of the most precious trade secrets of the century, and whether we like it or not, they inform the way we perceive the world.
There is a trend on TikTok where users are stitching a video that asks, “What side of TikTok are you not supposed to be on, but you just stay on?” What is happening is that the algorithm is serving users content, genres, or specific niches of content, that don’t obviously align with their interest or demographic, but they’ve found it interesting and so engage with the content to keep seeing similar videos. This is consumers believing they are manipulating algorithms as a form of entertainment, the UNO Reverse Card of social media trends (if you ask me.)
This might be the first time we’ve seen mass consumer awareness and engagement with the idea of algorithm manipulation. It’s a good thing and it’s very entertaining.
But this is not what is happening at all. Social media algorithms do not read the minds of users, nor are they making a mistake and serving people the ‘wrong’ content. Algorithms are designed to drive engagement. So, these ‘sides of TikTok’, the different genres and niches that people think they aren’t supposed to see, are known to drive engagement, and the trend is confirming this because users want to “just stay on.”
A few years ago, consumers weren’t thinking about algorithms at all. Remember when Instagram used to serve us content in chronological order? Oh, the good old days… And it’s here that lies the interesting consumer insight.
Consumers believe that the TikTok algorithm should know them, what they like and how they perceive the world. But it doesn’t.
The trend “What side of TikTok are you not supposed to be on, but you just stay on?” implies that algorithms pass moral judgements on content: to what areas of content and corners of the world do users belong to, and what have users found that they’re not supposed to see? In reality, the social media algorithms couldn’t really care less about demographics and identities.
Only in instances where content is dangerous or spreading misinformation does the algorithm make a ‘judgement’. In this instance, the algorithm knows to override engagement and suppress content.
Algorithms don’t just serve us entertainment, though. They’re used to model financial trading systems, medical devices and more. For consumers believe that they are informed by morality is an interesting development in the arc of consumers understanding, and one to keep an eye on.