Nikhil Sethi, on why he has multiple TikTok accounts.
In the early days of shelter-in-place, I, like many, found myself drawn to the allure of the hot new social media app taking over the lives of everyone I knew: TikTok. Upon downloading, I marveled at the algorithm’s ability to spoon-feed me content tailored to my tastes like I was a baby without a single thought in my head. Among the endless deluge of confusing and overwhelming news surrounding the pandemic, the app stood apart as a mindless way for me to consume as passively as possible. While Netflix and YouTube and books and podcasts offered endless paradoxes of choice, TikTok granted instant gratification.
Until recently, I had a single account for watching TikTok, and thus a single “For You Page” (FYP) which took me through different spheres and communities — from funny cat videos and ASMR cooking to spiritual lectures and anime fandom. I surrendered to the algorithm, letting the whims of my likes and shares and whatever other data ByteDance had dictate what I should be consuming. But eventually, the imperfections in the beautiful algorithm began to show: the flawed understanding of my interests and how often they would fluctuate meant that it eventually stopped feeling as relevant.
I was served content from dozens of unrelated interests: anime, sports, books, video games, standup comedy, news, spirituality, all presented in myriad variations and levels of irony. I was far too moody for the algorithm to keep up — sometimes I wanted to use my brain and learn about critical race theory or breakdowns of popular songs, sometimes I wanted to see really fit people flex in the mirror, post their PRs, and motivate me to work out. How could there be a singular “For You Page” when there were so many me’s?
Due to the sensitivity of the algorithm, creators started to make content at the intersection of multiple interests, when I often wanted to simply operate in different spaces. When I started receiving leftist gymbro content, I knew that I was too far gone. The context collapse of going from cute cat videos to explanations of the CIA’s contributions to foreign coups was already starting to feel like a problem, but I feared for what the crossover between the two could look like.
Eventually, I wondered if after being led through the digital world by the algorithm, I could act intentionally to shape the algorithm into something simpler, by making a new, alt account just for the brainless content I wanted to consume, free of anything that would cause me to think or feel too strongly (we’ve all done enough of that). With my new FYP, I aimed for the simplest of content, solely focused on exercise and related topics.
I came up with a dumb @ that no one could find, followed a few accounts, and got to work, pressing “Not Interested” on videos of dance trends and teenage hip thrusting and liking content that matched what I was looking for until I started getting served hip mobility routines. Nothing would be allowed, except for my narrow area of interest, and the algorithm could still serve me a diverse range of content within it, beyond what I would get if I simply curated certain creators to follow and only used my “Following” feed.
Eventually, after spending what felt like hours curating my new FYP, I arrived at the holy land of segmented FYPs: one where I could consume a content potpourri and one that I could watch when trying to convince myself to pump some iron.
Unlike my alt accounts on Instagram or Twitter which mostly curated for more intimate audiences, my TikTok alt was a way to curate what I would consume — my own futuristic television channel with wildly variable production quality. Initially, TikTok was novel because it took the decision-making out of a digital world where I was inundated with choice. Yet, now, I’m no longer a baby being spoon-fed, but a toddler who would like a few ounces of autonomy.
I wonder if the balance between algorithm and autonomy could be the next step for media platforms, like Netflix’s “Play Something” feature trying to unshackle us from choice after seeing the success of TikTok or Peacock’s channels for True Crime or Comedy Movies 24/7. Or maybe, after being brought back into infancy by TikTok, I’m simply hoping to relive my halcyon days of growing up on television with the comfort of being able to turn to Nickelodeon to see Spongebob or Fairly OddParents reruns, re-imagined as TikTok fitness trends rehashed incessantly. Maybe I just miss when the world felt smaller and simpler, with fewer choices to make. — By Nikhil Sethi