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.

Read the full article on page 30 of WIRED Middle East‘s Autumn 2020 issue.