Experts dissected TikTok’s algorithm and say a US buyer will struggle to replicate its magic

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A girl is holding a smartphone in her hands, which shows a video on the TikTok app. (posed scene)

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A prospective TikTok buyer may struggle to replicate the video app’s magic if it buys the service without its recommendation algorithms, experts tell Business Insider.

Parent company ByteDance is currently in negotiations with bidders over the sale of TikTok’s US business after President Trump in August ordered a sale or total ban. Lead bidders for the floated $20- to $30 billion deal include Microsoft, in partnership with Walmart, and Oracle.

But discussions have been slowed by new Chinese rules restricting the export of key services, including algorithms. The upshot is that a US buyer may end up buying TikTok’s US arm but only licensing the recommendation algorithm that makes the app so compelling.

“I personally think TikTok wouldn’t be TikTok without its algorithm,” said Bondy Valdovinos Kaye, a researcher at Queensland University of Technology, who has investigated TikTok.

Employees call TikTok’s algorithm its crown jewel

TikTok has charmed around 100 million users in the US, and superficially isn’t that different from YouTube. Individuals upload short videos of themselves doing anything from participating in set challenges to posting comedy skits and memes.

What differentiates the app is its “For You” page, or FYP, which throws up a beguiling mix of random, highly shareable short videos. Like YouTube and apps like Netflix, this centers on a system that recommends what users should watch next. What’s uncanny about TikTok is how good it is at it.


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Valdovinos Kaye visited ByteDance’s Beijing offices in 2019, where employees called the algorithm the “crown jewel” of ByteDance’s success.

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The algorithm was developed as a collaboration between ByteDance’s AI Lab and Peking University, Valdovinos Kaye said, and is the secret sauce that powers all ByteDance’s software.

Initially developed for Toutiao, ByteDance’s news aggregator, it is now used in every version of ByteDance’s apps, including Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

“We’re yet to see anyone else really successfully master recommendation to the degree they have,” said Sabba Keynejad of Veed, a video editing app that has attempted to reverse engineer the algorithm.

Certainly, ByteDance employs a vast engineering workforce to develop the algorithm.

When Valdovinos Kaye visited the Beijing offices, he was confronted with a multi-story office packed with programmers. (TikTok was approached to participate in this story but declined an interview request. They did, however, publish a blog post in June providing a high-level explanation of the workings of its algorithm.)

It’s more than just the algorithm

Keynejad added that we may be bestowing the algorithm with more influence than it has.

“The algorithm isn’t the thing that runs everything but I think it’s a perfect storm,” he said. “It’s product meets the right time in the market, meets these unengaged teens with this great recommendation engine, and all these themes running through the app.”

That’s …read more

Source:: Business Insider


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