The Creepy TikTok Algorithm Doesn’t Know You

It is a truth It is generally accepted that “the algorithm” knows you better than you know yourself. A computer can supposedly predict whether you will quit your job or break up with your partner. With 1,000 words of your letter, it can determine your age within four years. And no algorithm seems closer to omniscience than TikTok’s, which supposedly helps users discover their sexuality and unzip their childhood trauma. While Facebook asks you to set up a profile and reveal a treasure trove of personal information, TikTok just notices it – or it appears. The results can feel magical, writes Jess Joho in Mashable, as if TikTok “reads your soul like some kind of divine digital oracle, breaking up layers of your being that were never known to your own consciousness”.

As always, there is a dark side. Most users will be drawn into WitchTok and gardening guides, but others will end up on an unending scroll of ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, or autism (#mentalhealth, for example, has garnered nearly 21 billion views – a fraction of #dance, with 341 billion views, but nevertheless a remarkable achievement). This information can be extremely liberating, especially in conditions that are usually surrounded by stigma. However, some are concerned about respect for the platform’s pseudo-psychiatric content. “Once [the algorithm] gets you on the side, it keeps you there, “says psychology professor Inna Kanevsky, better known on TikTok as the unmasking @dr_inna,” and it looks like you’ve been diagnosed. ” which is offered by a for-profit algorithm and by content creators of varying reliability.

But the self-diagnosis debate is only a small part of the way in which we position TikTok and similar algorithms not as mere prediction machines, but as knowledge generators. While recommendation algorithms from Amazon to Netflix are designed to guess what to watch next, TikTok can feel like showing you who you’ve always been. In doing so, we open ourselves to the danger and the promise to “outsource self-confidence to AI”. While this new relationship with computing offers new opportunities for personal growth, it has also divided us into increasingly rigid identities.

The human mind has tried for millennia to understand himself through technological metaphors, writes artificial intelligence expert George Zarkadakis in his 2016 book In Our Own Image. In the Roman Empire, for example, the success of hydraulic engineering led to human intelligence being understood as the flow of four “sores”. Now we are describing the brain as a computer – just one of so many machines that “store” and “recall” memories and “process information”. While all of these metaphors remain profoundly flawed, the close collaboration between human neuroscience and computer science has revealed some fascinating similarities between our minds and our machines.

As with any algorithm, TikTok’s divinatory properties are just the end result of a series of repeated steps. When someone creates a new account, the algorithm targets them with a variety of popular videos designed to test their response to wide categories of content, from viral dances to home repairs, according to a recent Wall Street research Journal. When the newspaper unleashed more than 100 bots on TikTok, the platform’s “rabbit-holing” captured the preprogrammed interests of each bot in less than two hours.

It’s pretty simple math, but it’s also a creepy imitation of statistical learning, says John Bargh, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University. In this way, the human mind subconsciously acquires new knowledge – simply by perceiving patterns in the world around it. As with the TikTok algorithm, people are constantly learning, often without even realizing it.

In other words, it is a process that is largely unaware of any person and yet is completely controlled by what is drawing your attention.

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