Published: Feb. 21, 2022

Log into TikTok for the first time, and you get a firehose of videos featuring lip-syncing, tutorials, robotic voice-overs and tidbits of daily life. 

TikTok’s algorithm is supposed to help tailor the mass of content for each user, but for members of LGBTQ communities, the video-based social media platform can miss the mark.

In a study published in January, researchers Ellen Simpson and Bryan Semaan, both with the College of Media, Communication and Information, analyzed how 16 LGBTQ people adopted and experienced TikTok. The researchers found that while the participants enjoyed some aspects of the platform, they never quite felt at home using it.

“We started to do this because TikTok was getting a lot of bad press for suppressing queer content,” said Simpson, a PhD student in the Department of Information Science who led the research project. “There were people who were experiencing this, but at the same time, I think that a lot of the people who were on this app were all experiencing this ‘Oh, I’m seeing me’ moment, like a huge validation of yourself.”

On Jan. 14, Simpson, Semaan and Andrew Hamann, an undergraduate researcher at Syracuse University (now at the University of California Irvine) published “How to Tame ‘Your’ Algorithm: LGBTQ+ Users’ Domestication of TikTok” in the academic journal Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction.

The researchers conducted participant interviews in 2020, asking why individuals adopted TikTok and what challenges they encountered while incorporating it into their daily lives. They analyzed the responses using domestication theory, which breaks the process of routinizing technology into four stages: appropriation, objectification, incorporation and conversion.

They focused on TikTok’s “For You,” page, the entry page for users on the platform. The TikTok algorithm gathers trace data—the digital tracks people leave as they click, like, follow and otherwise engage with the platform—to feed customized content onto the “For You” page.

Although other platforms use algorithms to curate content, the researchers noted that TikTok users tend to have a higher awareness of the algorithm because of the prominence of the “For You” page on the platform.

“In understanding people’s motivations and strategies for adopting and working to resist how algorithms are controlling their lived experiences, we can gain a lot of insight for how to make these systems better,” said Semaan, associate professor of information science. “This is especially important in that we are focused explicitly on people at the margins—those members of society whose voices are often not included or even purposefully excluded from design processes.”

Based on participant interviews and past research, the researchers concluded that LGBTQ users have a “dual experience” on the platform, Simpson said. 

For example, an Indigenous participant enjoyed seeing people from tribal communities engage with their Native identities; however, following Indigenous content also prompted the algorithm to show her people appropriating her culture.

Some people, like a participant who has struggled with her identity as a bisexual woman, found validation through interacting with TikTok’s LGBTQ community. Others felt they were connecting with other gay people but struggled to find diverse content within gay TikTok.

One participant, a Black college student in the Midwest “was on gay TikTok, but it was basically white, gay TikTok. There wasn’t like Black, gay TikTok she could put herself on,” Simpson said. “That’s an example of how you can end up with these moments where you are both validated and invalidated at the same time.”

Because the algorithm was continually shifting its recommended content based on trace data, the users also felt they could never relax into routine use of the platform. Users felt like one outlying click, or watching the wrong video for too long, would prompt the algorithm to significantly change their “For You” page.

“People have to be constantly vigilant. You have to constantly be thinking about this algorithm, so you can’t ever really routinize your use of it and render it invisible,” Simpson said. 

Simpson and Semaan are continuing their research on TikTok with studies on the experience of content creators on the platform and users on other algorithmic platforms. 

“Given that algorithms are controlling many aspects of our lives, it is important to learn about people’s lived experiences with algorithmic systems,” Semaan said. “In our work, not only are we learning about how people are routinely being challenged by algorithms, but we are also learning about how people are also challenging, and thus resisting, the status quo.”