TikTok knows you better than you know yourself.
That’s a bold statement to make, and it’s debatable for sure. However, the algorithm the social media app uses to track what you do, when you click like or comment on a video, and how long you use the app is quite powerful. It even knows you when you are not using the app.
I’ve argued that the algorithm that tracks everything we do is what has made TikTok so extremely popular. We just can’t seem to stop using it all day.
There’s no question this tracking is what makes the app so addictive and powerful. Watch a few videos of a Land Rover piling through mud (guilty) and you will keep seeing them. Forever. All day. Because now TikTok knows you like Land Rovers and mud. The more you use the app, the more it knows you.
In what appears to be a blessing and a curse, the algorithm is also at the center of the debate about whether the app should be banned in the United States.
An underlying issue is how TikTok can analyze user behavior and potentially sway public opinion. This is a real concern, but it’s not just reserved for TikTok or even social media apps. Apple had a major mic-drop moment when they announced that app tracking was not going to be a default option, giving users the right to decide if it was active. And yet, advertisers are still tracking your clicks, your browsing habits, and your interests.
We’re living in an age when our apps know all about us — including where we drive, what we eat for dinner, our musical tastes, and even our political affiliations. How do they know this? Because they watch every click on the web, and note how long we linger to watch ads, view videos, and consume content. TikTok is just the most popular offender. We decided a long time ago to give up our privacy in order to use these apps for free and allow advertisers to track everything we do, including how long we watch a viral dance video.
At the heart of this issue is not who owns TikTok, or how to resolve the problem of user tracking by moving the data tracking to a server in Texas. (Sometimes I think the solutions are just as ridiculous as the problem.) The tracking issue is even bigger than the political ramifications of allowing one app to influence our viewpoints. The truth is, all apps are influencing us. All technology, all websites, all servers, all tech companies. Influence is here to stay.
What really has to be addressed by all of us, by each individual, is whether we want to let this influence continue, to allow apps to track everything we do.
One solution is to change the entire business relationship we have with apps, websites, and social media. Advertisers will always want to track what we do in order to customize their content. That is what works so effectively. When we decide to release ourselves from the business relationship, to pay for apps that offer real value and not allow advertisers to track us, then we will finally delve into the root issue.
I doubt if that is going to happen.
Free apps like TikTok are alluring and compelling because we don’t have to think about it that much. We are not just mindlessly scrolling and watching videos; we are mindlessly allowing the tracking and not thinking about the long-term ramifications.
While it is a serious issue that a Chinese company could be influencing elections and swaying public opinion, it’s even more dangerous that we don’t seem to care that this break in privacy is happening.