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How TikTok’s Technology Makes the Service Popular

A TikTok sign is displayed on their building in Culver City, Calif., on March 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
A TikTok sign is displayed on their building in Culver City, Calif., on March 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
How TikTok’s Technology Makes the Service Popular
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A recent American law requires TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the company’s U.S. operations within nine months or face a nationwide ban.

But the video sharing service remains popular among Americans. It remains unclear if ByteDance will agree to sell the business. It also is not known whether the law can survive expected legal challenges related to freedom of speech.

Here is a look at how TikTok has developed its technology and expanded its business to include more than one billion users worldwide.

ByteDance was launched in China in 2012 by businessman Zhang Yimin. Its first product was a news collection service for Chinese users. In 2016, ByteDance launched a video sharing app called Douyin. The popularity of Douyin led the company to launch a foreign version of that app called TikTok.

ByteDance bought a video sharing service called for $1 billion in November 2017. The company then combined that app with TikTok in August 2018.

Technology experts have widely considered TikTok’s predictive algorithms a main driver of its success. The artificial intelligence (AI)-powered system seeks to identify what new videos users will likely be interested in based on what they have watched before.

TikTok offers users videos of many different interests. These could include users demonstrating dance moves, food preparation videos or personal care advice. Some TikTok users also take part in physical “challenges” that start on the app. Videos can discuss serious subjects like politics or war but could also include humorous performances or information about music or movies.

A recent report by Reuters news agency examined TikTok’s technology and operating methods. It suggests the company’s use of algorithms has played a major part in its success. Industry experts said the app’s algorithm is particularly good at working with the short video format used by the app.

Before TikTok, many industry experts believed the most important element to having a successful social media app was linking a user's social connections. Such a model was successfully demonstrated by Meta’s Facebook and Instagram services.

But TikTok showed that an algorithm, driven by data from what a user looks for and watches on the service, could be more powerful. Rather than building an algorithm to connect large social groups, TikTok has sought to develop what it calls users’ “interest signals.”

Some TikTok competitors use similar interest-based algorithms. But TikTok has been able to perfect its system because it uses short videos, said Catalina Goanta. She is an associate professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who studies how social media services make money.

Goanta told Reuters that while the kind of algorithm TikTok uses is common among similar social apps, “what really distinguishes TikTok…is the design and the content," she noted.

Experts say the short video format permits TikTok's algorithm to identify in greater detail specific user interests and favorites. This enables the app to predict what kind of content TikTok users will want to see at different times of the day.

Jason Fung is the former head of TikTok's gaming activities. He told Reuters the app’s short video format permits TikTok to learn what users want to see at a much faster rate.

"You're able to collect data about a user's preference a lot faster than YouTube, where maybe the average video is just less than 10 minutes long," Fung said. "Imagine you're collecting data about a user on average every 10 minutes versus every couple (of) seconds," he added.

Industry experts say TikTok's early entry into the short video market supported its success. Instagram did not launch its short video service Reels until 2020, while YouTube introduced its Shorts service in 2021.

TikTok has also been effective at getting its users to form groups by establishing certain hashtags, said Ari Lightman. He is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. These groups that users form help TikTok learn more details about members’ behaviors, interests and personal beliefs.

Lightman said that if TikTok is banned in the U.S., he thinks it will be difficult for any existing technology company to reproduce the strong user culture that the app has built.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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Words in This Story

challenge – n. something difficult that tests one’s ability or determination

app n. a computer program that carries out one or several closely linked tasks

algorithm – n. a set of steps that are followed in order to solve a mathematical problem or to complete a computer process

format – n. the way something is designed, arranged or produced

distinguish – v. to recognize the differences between two people, things, etc.

preference – n. the feeling of liking something or someone more than another person or thing

hashtag –n. a special word marked by a # symbol that search engines use to find information on the internet