TikTok’s suggested search problem
A recent tool is making things messy for creators
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TikTok is aiming to be the search engine of the 2020s, and to that I say: Godspeed. Google search may be in decline, but at least the results are still legible, and I can read about why my wrist/neck/chest hurts without a Temple Run screen recording taking up half the screen. And so TikTok’s newish slew of search features—like turning phrases from comments into searchable keywords—have mostly passed me by. But one particular feature is determined to make itself known, by being a messy bitch who lives for drama.
Near the end of 2022, I started noticing certain videos would come with their own search suggestions. For instance, a video about crocheting would prompt you to search “crochet projects for beginners.” The goal, it seems, is to anticipate what you’d be curious about after watching whatever it is you just saw. But human curiosity is a dangerous thing to cater to, because more often than not, what TikTok’s search predictor thinks we’re curious about is the intimate details of the creators’ personal lives.
Joe Ando and Niamh Adkins are two popular TikTok creators who, at one point, dated. They might still be dating! Viewers aren’t sure, because the pair haven’t appeared in many videos together recently, and they haven’t responded to any of the commenters who are speculating about their relationship status. It’s very clear that, whatever’s going on, they don’t want to talk about it publicly. But you know who does? TikTok’s suggested search feature, which suggests “Joe and Niamh break up” on every single one of their videos.
These suggested searches can give viewers the wrong impression about what they’re watching. Creator Ian Paget ran into this problem last week when he posted a video of himself eating a cinnamon roll and crying. As he later explained, he was crying over how good the cinnamon roll tasted (at least, that’s what he insists. People are still skeptical). The suggested search on this video? “Ryan Trainor”—Megan Trainor’s brother, who is rumored to be dating Paget’s ex, Chris Olsen.
“I do not follow my ex and I do not know what’s going on in his life,” Paget said in a TikTok story addressing the suggested search. “But now this search bar and TikTok and everyone who’s online … think that video had to do with that.”
In some cases, the suggested searches are more than just shady—they’re the source of actual misinformation. Earlier this month, labor and delivery nurse Jen Hamilton posted a video about being exhausted after a difficult shift. The suggested search, for reasons unknown, was “Elyse Myers pregnancy loss.”
Myers, a popular creator with over six million followers, had thankfully not lost her baby. But as soon as that suggested search appeared, viewers understandably took it as a piece of tragic news that they had missed, and reacted accordingly.
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“That video had nothing to do with Elyse,” Hamilton said in a follow-up. “Please do not use my video to go to her page and ask her questions about losing her baby. And to Elyse, I am so sorry.”
“TikTok is so wild, I don’t understand the search recommendations!” Myers wrote in the comments. “Baby is healthy!”
How helpful is it to have TikTok predict our searches if the tool is confusing people more than it is helping them? Similarly, how much of a leap forward is GPT-4 if it just makes stuff up, or the latest version of Midjourney if the images it generates are “creepy”? Our robot overlords are not going to destroy us. It’s more likely they’ll just keep finding novel new ways to annoy us, especially if we keep pursuing these technological advances just for the sake of it.