Wired Middle East

Serendipity is TikTok’s secret weapon

Serendipity is TikTok’s secret weapon

I originally wrote this article for the Autumn 2020 issue of WIRED Middle East magazine

In the 2001 rom-com Serendipity, a love-struck John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale engage in a cosmic test to measure their compatibility. Instead of simply swapping phone numbers, one of them writes their number on the back of a $5 bill, the other on the inside of a book cover, and they send them off out into the world. If they are meant to be together, fate will dictate that their paths will cross again. Spoiler alert: they are, it does, and they do. While it’s no Citizen Kane, the message is clear: some things in life are best left to chance. A bit schmaltzy, sure. But there’s some truth in there too.

In today’s world where the shows we watch, the things we read, and the products we buy are increasingly influenced by algorithms, these moments of serendipity are becoming rarer than ever. Platforms like Facebook, Amazon and Netflix know so much about us, yet their view of us can be surprisingly narrow. Or at least that’s how it seems when you look at how they act on this information, primarily showing us recommendations based on things that they know we already like. Oh, you liked the Facebook page of a certain politician? Here’s a bunch of Facebook pages for affiliated political groups. Watched a horror movie on Netflix lately? Here’s a hundred other horror movies. Searched for a smartphone on Amazon? Feast your eyes on a thousand similar smartphones that follow you around the web waving at you from every page you visit. Just like the way you might find yourself in an online filter bubble surrounded by like-minded people because of the content you interact with, you can also end up in a loop of the same type of stuff being recommended to you again and again. But we are not as one dimensional as the algorithms might wish we were. Sometimes all we really need is something a bit different. TikTok is one of the few platforms that seems to understand this.

The Chinese video-sharing social network is getting a lot of press these days, what with the US President threatening to shut it down and all. But it’s only got such a spotlight on it because of how big it has gotten so fast. According to the company’s recent numbers, the app has been downloaded over 2 billion times globally, with about 50 million daily active users in the US alone, all in the space of just three years. It’s become such a phenomenon that it’s spawned a raft of copycats, most notably one from Instagram called Reels. But, while some of these imposters might look on the surface to do a similar job as TikTok, they can’t replicate what’s under the hood; the content discovery algorithm. Popular content gets distributed across TikTok in the For You feed which is algorithmically tailored to show clips that suit each user’s interests and behaviour. This is TikTok’s not-so-secret weapon. And serendipity plays a big role in how it works.

Earlier this summer TikTok gave the public a sneak peek at how its algorithm personalises content for each user in a post on the company’s blog. A lot of the signals it takes into account are pretty standard across most social media platforms: your stated interests, the accounts you follow, the content you create and interact with, and whether you watch a video to the end. But one of its tactics stands out – TikTok throws regular curve balls at its users, purposefully putting content into your feed that it has no indication that you might like:

To keep your For You feed interesting and varied, our recommendation system works to intersperse diverse types of content along with those you already know you love. …Sometimes you may come across a video in your feed that doesn’t appear to be relevant to your expressed interests or have amassed a huge number of likes.

This is an important and intentional component of our approach to recommendation: bringing a diversity of videos into your For You feed gives you additional opportunities to stumble upon new content categories, discover new creators, and experience new perspectives and ideas as you scroll through your feed.

TikTok tries to find a balance between suggesting content that’s relevant to you while also helping you find content and creators that you might not otherwise come across based on your previous behavior. Diversity and variation is key in guiding users away from the dreaded filter bubble, not to mention keeping things interesting and fresh. It’s what broadens a user’s horizons and keeps them coming back for more. Many of us will be familiar with the unfulfilling drudge of scrolling through the Facebook or Instagram Feed and seeing the same type of predictable and repetitive content over and over again. But if the feed stops being a surprising and interesting place to be, users will get bored. This is something that TikTok seems to be acutely aware of. And it’s proving to be a significant competitive advantage in getting users hooked on the platform and keeping them engaged. Variety is the spice of life. When it comes to finding something new, sometimes it’s best to roll the dice. Who knows what you might get.

Posted by Rob in Social Media, Tik Tok, Wired Middle East
Interview with Reem Al Marzouqi for WIRED Middle East

Interview with Reem Al Marzouqi for WIRED Middle East

I originally wrote this article for the Autumn 2020 issue of WIRED Middle East magazine

Thomas Edison was a busy guy. The renowned American inventor was responsible for such innovations as the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb and one of the earliest motion picture cameras. In total, Edison was granted over 1,000 patents in his lifetime – a figure that is regularly used to illustrate his status as a pioneer. And it’s this symbol of the patent that’s such a powerful representation of innovation and originality – a way of quantifying humanity adapting to an ever-changing world. In a typical year, over 300,000 patents are granted in the United States of America alone, and since 1836, 10 million of them have been issued to inventors from all over the world. But until 2013, none of these came from the UAE. All that changed when 23 year-old Emirati engineering student, Reem Al Marzouqi, was awarded a US patent for designing a car for people with special needs that can be driven without using their hands.

The invention itself was a happy accident. The result of a university project to modify an existing device for people with special needs without violating a current copyright or patent, Al Marzouqi misunderstood the task and instead created an entirely original system for drivers to control the steering wheel with just their feet. Inspired by a documentary on armless American pilot Jessica Cox, and motivated by an impulse to help people adapt to challenging environments, Reem dove head-first into the project. While she may not have got the grade she wanted, her teachers were impressed. At first Al Marzouqi didn’t know what a patent was and had to be persuaded to submit her designs by her teachers at the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) in Al Ain. “I was a student at the time so (my university) did everything from A to Z. I just had to fill some forms and submit my thesis and sketches. And the sketches were so simple. I was in my first year at university, I still didn’t know how to use the fancy software. So it was all hand sketches.”

But it was in working within these constraints that gave her the biggest lesson in creativity – much of the time, simplicity is key. “People need to be more simple. We tend to complicate things in order to look professional and perfect. Yet the reality is the world needs more simpler ways, smarter solutions.” Her invention sprung from a basic idea and a bunch of scrappy sketches that she put together without any prior experience or technical knowhow. It mightn’t have been pretty, but it did the job. As the Silicon Valley mantra goes, “done is better than perfect”. In some cases, a lack of experience can even stand to your advantage. The more entrenched you are in a field, the harder it can be to think outside the box and be creative. But if you don’t know what the rules are, you’re not bound by them. “The less you know about something, the more creative you are. The more you know, the deeper you go into the box, and you will be surrounding your brain with the barriers and saying, ‘No, you can’t’. But if you don’t know it, you will not say that you cannot.” Her message to young people in the region is that you don’t need to be an expert to become an inventor. Anyone can do it, so don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and get your hands dirty. “People think you have to have a degree, you have to be an expert… to be an inventor. I really thought I’d have to be one of those (people) studying 24/7, reading all the books and knowing everything about everything. That’s the typical idea of inventors. I didn’t think I was one of them.”

When the call came from the University that the patent had been granted she baulked at the attention and actually needed some persuading to show up and accept the recognition. “I first received the call from my university for a photo shoot and I was too lazy to go there and take a picture. I was like, ‘No, just pick anyone and tell them “This is Reem”’. I didn’t realise it until I saw people’s reaction in the media and how the university was taking it as a big deal.” It wasn’t until she read about her achievement in the newspapers that she even realised that she was the first ever Emirati to be granted a patent in the United States. These days Al Marzouqi works with Abu Dhabi Airports, helping to make the new Midfield Terminal become one of the most advanced airport facilities in the world. Meanwhile, the prototype of her car is proudly displayed in the UAEU in Al Ain, a signal to other students that they too can make a difference. All they need is an idea and a pencil.

Posted by Rob in Wired Middle East