Tik Tok at U of T: how students have made it big on the viral app

Varied experiences about community building, claims of anti-Black bias in algorithms

Muzna Erum

TikTok was the second most downloaded app worldwide in 2019. In the years following its release in 2017, it has seen significant success, with 800 million active users. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, TikTok has only been growing faster.

It is most popular among those between the ages of 16 and 24, a demographic which makes up 41 per cent of the app’s users. The app has also had partnerships with celebrities and big brands such as Jimmy Fallon and his #TumbleweedChallenge, which went viral in 2018, adding 8,000 videos to the platform. The app has provided entertainment through the lockdown, helping many people, especially adolescents, connect to the outside world.

“I never had people that interested in what I was posting before. And then it kind of just blew up,” said creator Olivia Jordan — a former University of Toronto student who reviews movies and has amassed over 19,500 followers on her TikTok account.

U of T students on their stardom

One of the main reasons why TikTok has become a popular app is because of its content. Videos can be easily created and posted with few limitations. Many different types of content can be presented on the app in bite-size videos that are 60 seconds or less and play on a constant loop: lip syncing, dancing, singing, memes, and funny sketches — you name it. Yet, what makes this app most distinct from many other social media apps is its addictive algorithm.

Recently released information about the algorithm powering the ‘For You’ pages, which show users customized content, revealed that TikTok relies on strong signals and weak signals to indicate the type of content users are interested in. Some strong signals include watching a video to its end or sharing the content. Weaker signals involve language preferences and the type of device users have.

One main point to note is that a high follower count does not always mean a higher likelihood that your video will be recommended to others. Even if a content creator has zero followers on TikTok, their video could still make it onto users’ For You pages and go viral. TikTok’s blog post revealed that new videos are initially shown to a small group of users, and depending on their reaction and engagement, these videos are either shown to increasingly more people or become restricted in its reach.

Jordan, along with fellow TikToker Fizza Anaq, a first-year student studying psychology and health sciences, have benefitted from this algorithm. Anaq is a TikTok creator who has amassed over 18,400 followers. Her content, which consists of memes and videos about her life, has created a community around her from the ground up that shares content related to Desi culture.

Anaq had no plans of becoming a TikTok star when she first started. She posted her first video in April 2020, racking up 3,977 views. Each post she made after that has gained more views, and now, she receives thousands of views per video.

Jordan’s first TikTok, centred around Marvel movies, was posted in November 2020 and received a whopping 256,400 views. Today, she receives between a few thousand to a few hundred thousand views per video.

These content creators were both able to cultivate their platforms because TikTok’s algorithms help creators build their community without high levels of previous exposure. Both Jordan and Anaq have found many fascinating opportunities as a result of creating content on TikTok. Anaq received sponsorships from companies, and Jordan worked with other creators on an account called Cinema Nation, an account that reviews movies and TV shows and has more than 50,000 followers.

Allegations of shadowbanning and questionable algorithms

Given all the opportunities for growth and viral videos, it’s easy to say that TikTok seems like the best app for new creators. However, these same algorithms that promote fresh content have also allegedly silenced Black creators through ‘shadow banning,’ the process of stopping traffic on certain accounts without the user’s knowledge.

Users claim that it is evident when they have been shadowbanned once their high numbers of views abruptly decreases, meaning that TikTok is showing their content to less viewers. Since this seems like a punishment, many users believe it results from them posting more controversial content.

TIME reported that many Black creators who spoke to the publication noticed a decline in viewership and engagement after posting content related to Black Lives Matter. Although a TikTok representative told TIME that the platform does not use shadowbanning and has pledged to provide better support for its Black creators, some still notice indications of bias in the algorithms.

DajahRai Green, a Black creator on TikTok with around 45,000 followers and a second-year U of T student studying sociology, has seen this firsthand.

Like Jordan and Anaq, Green also posted content to have fun and pass the time during the pandemic. Soon, she began accumulating more followers. Green’s content covers topics such as her experience growing up with Caribbean parents, feminism, and racism. She likes using TikTok because it’s much easier to reach an audience and provides a lot more creativity than apps like Instagram.

But her experience on TikTok has been markedly different from other creators like Jordan and Anaq. She said, “l’ll have 100 views on the video, knowing that I have 42,000 followers. Something’s clearly not adding up.”

She has also said that TikTok’s algorithms can grab viewers who disagree with her content, exhibit racism, and post racist comments on her videos. Not only that, but Green has also noticed that many ethical guidelines are not being followed on TikTok.

“[TikTok will] silence Black creators speaking on important issues,” she said. “But then, you’ll see a video of someone doing blackface, and they say there’s nothing wrong with it.”

While TikTok can offer many young creators the ability to create community and connections through its algorithms, the biases that these algorithms can perpetrate have tangible consequences. Overall, Green wants to see TikTok do better, for the good of all users.

“I would like to see them handle the racism, especially [the] Black racism that is just so rampant on the app,” she said. “I feel like a lot of people brush it off as, ‘oh, it’s just social media.’ But the people posting to social media are the people you interact with in your daily lives.”

“It’s not just robots calling people ‘monkeys’ and making fun of George Floyd’s death,” Green added. “These are very real people.”

Cover visual: (From left to right) You can check out the TikTok stars: DajahRai Green, Fizza Anaq, Olivia Jordan without leaving your bed. COURTESY OF RESPECTIVE PEOPLE