Exclusive: How is the secret TikTok button that can make anyone go viral

TikTok and ByteDance employees regularly participate in “warm-ups,” a manual push that ensures specific videos “achieve a certain number of views.”

23 January 2023 11:47

For years, TikTok described its powerful “For You” page as a personalized feed ranked by an algorithm that predicts your interests based on your behavior on the app. But that’s not the whole story, according to six current and former employees of TikTok and its parent company, bytedanceadded to some internal documents and communications reviewed by Forbes.

These sources reveal that in addition to letting the algorithm decide what goes viral, TikTok and ByteDance staff also secretly curate specific videos and boost their distributionusing a practice known internally as “warming up”.

The heating function refers to boosting the videos in the feed for you through the intervention of the operation to achieve a certain number of video views, explains an internal TikTok document titled MINT Heating Playbook. Views of so-called ‘hot videos’ account for a large portion of total daily video views, about 1-2 %, which can have a significant impact on overall core metrics.

This is the TikTok heating button

TikTok has never publicly disclosed that it is in the business of heating up, and while all tech giants engage, to some degree, in efforts to amplify specific posts for their users, they generally clearly label when they do so. GoogleMeta and TikTokFor example, they partnered with public health and election groups to distribute accurate information about Covid-19 and help users find their polling place, clearly revealing how and why they chose to promote these messages.

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But the sources told Forbes that TikTok often used this method to woo influencers and brands, attracting them into associations by inflating the view count of their videos. This suggests that the famous warm-up potentially benefited some influencers and brands, those with whom TikTok sought business relationshipsat the expense of others with which it did not.

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We believe that the social media they are very democratizing and give everyone an equal opportunity to reach an audience, said Evelyn Douek, a professor at Stanford Law School and a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute. But that’s not always trueI warned. To some extent, the same old power structures are also being replicated on social media, where the platform can decide winners and losers to a certain extentand trade and other associations take advantage.

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The warm-up also reveals that, at least sometimes, the videos on the For You page aren’t there because TikTok thinks you’ll like them; However, they are there because TikTok wants a particular brand or creator to get more views. And without tags, like those used for ads and sponsored content, it’s impossible to tell which is which.

The staff are to blame, according to the report

Employees also abused the privileges of this process. Three sources told Forbes that they were aware of cases in which employees used the heater inappropriately; one said that employees have been known to heat their own accounts or those of their spouses in violation of company policy.

The documents reviewed by Forbes showed that employees did this with their own accounts, as well as the accounts of people with whom they have personal relationships. According to one document, one such heating incident caused one account to receive more than three million views.

In addition, the documents show that staff, including those from TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, and even contractors working with the company, They exercise considerable discretion in deciding what content to promote.

A document called TikTok warm up policy It says employees can use the warmup to “attract influencers” and “promote diverse content,” but also to “push important information” and “promote relevant videos missed by recommendation algorithms.”

Two sources told Forbes that employees often felt left to their own devices to determine if a video met these guidelines.

In response to a detailed set of questions about how and who used the warmup, TikTok spokesperson Jamie Favazza wrote: We promoted some videos to help diversify the content experience and introduce up-and-coming creators and celebrities to the TikTok community. Only a few people, based in the US, have the ability to approve content for promotion in the US, and that content makes up about 0.002% of the videos on For You feeds.

tiktok, ByteDance

The documentation that supports the warm-up of TikTok

The warm-up documentation within TikTok and ByteDance is substantial, but poorly organized. It suggests that TikTok and ByteDance initially engaged in this practice for a mundane and legitimate business purpose: diversify TikTok content away from lip syncing and dancing teenagers, and towards videos that would interest more users.

The purpose of this feature is to promote diverse content, push relevant information and support creators, says MINT Heating Playbook. “If you make good use of it, the resources of the warm-up will bring a growth of mid-range users and a more diverse group of content.”

A source told Forbes that the warm-up was also used to fuel high-profile collaborations between TikTok and outside players, including NGOs and artists courted by the platform, and was also supposed to be used when a creator in a category (for example, beauty) created a video in another category (for example, cooking). In those situations, the person said, heating “can help the algorithm find the right audience.”

There is a fraught history of tech platforms using their discretion to increase the reach of specific posts. Human healing helped platforms create safe experiences for kids and to control misinformationbut it also led to claims that companies use curation to impose their own political preferences on users.

In December, TikTok announced that it would add a new panel to recommended videos titled “Why This Video,” which would tell users how a particular video was chosen for them. Examples in the blog post, which touted the new feature as “meaningful transparency,” included explanations like: “This video is popular in the United States” and “You are following [cuenta]”, but the post did not mention heating as part of the process.

Asked if the new feature would reveal when videos had heated up, Favazza wrote: We are continuing our work to expand our why this video feature and provide more granularity and transparency to content recommendations.

*With information from Forbes US. This story has been updated with additional comments from TikTok.

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