What is “heating” and how is it changing the way we understand TikTok?

Going viral on TikTok is one of the most alluring elements of the app. Anyone from anywhere can go viral, based on an algorithm that decides whether your video is “viral-worthy.” This experience seems magical to many, as millions of videos are posted on the platform everyday. Well, along with the TikTok algorithm deciding what is likable and what isn’t, Emily Baker-White, a Senior writer at Forbes, uncovered that “heating,” as it is internally known, is also taking place. “Heating” is when an employee at TikTok or ByteDance, a Chinese technology company located in Beijing which developed TikTok, decides that they want to manually force a video to get a specific number of views. This phenomenon is described by the platform as an “operation intervention” to ensure a video is seen by a large number of viewers. This would mean TikTok isn’t as personalized as we had originally thought. Now don’t be too worried, the heated content makes up only a small fraction of videos that a user gets on their feed.


So, why does TikTok “heat” certain videos?

The reason some videos are heated is that, when trying to make deals/partnerships with certain influencers, artists, or brands, they will inflate their videos to entice them to seal the deal by showcasing that TikTok would be a benefit to them.


How does this affect users and what makes this dangerous?

The decision to begin “heating” videos was made in response to the platform being initially dominated by teen dancing videos, from which the platform wanted to diversify to attract larger audiences. Emily Baker-White notes that one document she reviewed stated “employees may use heating to attract influencers, promote diverse content, push important information, and promote relevant videos that were missed by the recommendations algorithms.” The main issue with this is that employees at TikTok and ByteDance are given an immense amount of power to push videos with a little stipulation on what videos they are allowed to heat. The main concerns are that, firstly, it is being kept pretty secretive by the platform, and secondly, employees have unbarred discretion to push videos which may be based on their personal interests or biases.


Don’t all social media platforms do this?

While many companies like Facebook and Instagram have something similar, these platforms have a lot more restrictions on pushing content. Most other platforms have heavy regulations and checks to monitor content that can be promoted manually. Unlike these other platforms, most TikTok and ByteDance employees have the power to heat videos and there is no check on this power.


In light of recent efforts by lawmakers to ban TikTok, what role does heating play?

There is currently no evidence that heating has been used to shape public discourse, promote one political group over another, or influence elections, however, such unchecked power definitely holds a threat for such possibilities to take place. Lawmakers are currently pretty concerned by this due to how popular the app is and the potential power it has to influence American discourse. This is especially a concern as it relates to ByteDance, a Chinese company that could, at the behest of government officials, push certain political content to shape the American audience.



This post was authored by Savannah Throneberry, 1L and member of SLATE. If you are a student interested in writing for MuseNews Blog, email Alex Hutchings, Student Services Librarian, at ahutchings@richmond.edu.

What is “Heating” and How is it Affecting TikTok? — by Savannah Throneberry (1L)

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