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Unraveling the Mystery of the TikTok ‘For You’ Page

Photo: Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

TikTok’s ascension has been swift thanks to hefty word of mouth and strong marketing muscle from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. It might also have something to do with the fact that, as a fun, short-form-video-based social network, it feels like Vine (RIP) on steroids. There is also, crucially, a bit of mystery surrounding TikTok’s primary feature, the “For You” page.

The For You page is the front page of TikTok, the landing place when users open the app. The videos on this page are populated by a recommendation engine that’s a black box to anyone outside the company. TikTok itself has remained mum on the matter; in August, Vice was unable to wrangle any answers out of the company. The most detail I was able to wring out of a spokesperson was that the For You feed changes based on what you like and whom you follow. Sending obvious signals of preferences twists its shape.

The closest analog to the For You algorithm is Instagram’s “Explore” page. They are both designed around the idea that “If you’re into this thing, you might also be into this other thing.” The difference, however, is that each app is the inverse of the other. If you load up Instagram, you’re greeted by a feed of people you follow, and you can pop over to the Explore tab. TikTok opens to the For You page, so the people you’ve actually chosen to follow are secondary to the algorithm’s continuously updating recommendations.

The prominence and power of the For You page is similar to the Facebook News Feed. It’s personalized to each user, but it feels as if it’s universal because of its role as the app’s main section. Because of this, TikTok users try to growth-hack their way into the For You page similar to the way media outlets and brands fight for space on the News Feed. Getting on a lot of users’ For You pages is the fastest way to get a follower base

Unlike Facebook, however, TikTok offers no best practices, leaving users to try to divine its secrets on their own. “I do have my own theories, but I don’t think anyone knows exactly how it works,” Jacob Pace, the CEO of Flighthouse, a TikTok media brand, told me. He theorized that a video is more likely to spread to other For You feeds if someone watches it all the way through (it has a high retention rate), an obvious signal that someone has made something interesting. A video that consistently gets likes might behave similarly.

“I think it just starts to compound more and more based on the retention rate,” he guessed. “If ten people watch it all the way through, then it’s gonna get recommended to another hundred people,” and so on, spreading exponentially.

This is fairly intuitive: A recommendation algorithm will usually take implicit or explicit signals that you enjoyed something and try to give you more of that.

But there are other myths about the For You page, less intuitive and more debatable. The most prolific TikTok convention is a series of hashtags that are plastered to many popular videos. It might be #foryou or #foryoupage or #fyp. TikTok users believe that adding these tags helps give them a boost in the eyes of the almighty algorithm.

There are plenty of YouTube videos offering young people advice on becoming TikTok famous. One stresses proper hashtag etiquette. “Don’t use four hashtags. You need a neat caption,” it instructs. Use #foryou and #foryoupage, and then use your final tag for the genre your video falls into. Do not mistag your videos.

Other YouTube guides recommend doing engagement bait. A popular genre of TikTok shows the setup but not the result: a science experiment that needs 24 hours to take hold, or a threat to expose someone for cheating if a user gets enough likes. Guilt people into liking your video by saying that you’re “posting it to my zero followers.”

Other advice suggests that users surf a trend. Make short videos. Participate in memes. Use trending sounds and do dance challenges. As with every other algorithm-powered social network, surfing the trend wave is a lot easier than coming up with your own.

“The first time I started using hashtags, I noticed a huge difference in the amount of likes I was getting,” another TikTok expert suggests.

This advice comes up frequently in other guides as well, but there’s no definitive evidence that it works. “I don’t know, dude,” Pace told me. “I don’t know how to feel about that one. I’ve heard it’s a myth, but it doesn’t hurt, right?” Getting on the For You page is less a science and more just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Unraveling the Mystery of the TikTok ‘For You’ Page