TikTok's algorithm will do anything to keep you glued to its For You Page — even if it means dredging up old memories you wish you could forget
- TikTok's FYP is ruled by engagement rather than context or chronology or self-reported interests.
- Users can create guardrails to avoid triggering content, but the app's moderation is imperfect.
"It's March 2020," a blonde woman I've never seen before, Marjana Maksuti (@marthestarr), tells via TikTok. "We've got gloves," she says, wiggling her latex fingers in a kitchenette with the same festive claustrophobia and bleak light as every New York apartment I've lived in for the last decade. She's laughing.
"POV: It's been three years since the shutdown, and you didn't leave NYC bc you got the first round of Corona and almost died," the on-screen text reads.
"It's officially wartime," Maksuti says half-jokingly, in a way that reminds me of the early days — when people left the city with a weekender bag and didn't come back for months. The scant, well-intended advice of the period — wash your hands; don't touch your face; please, stranger, stay safe — makes my chest hurt. It's a jarring thing to encounter at random — a visceral immersion into an era of chronic dread spent wiping groceries with Clorox wipes.
tbh i haven’t been able to look at the footage until now♬ How Far We've Come - Matchbox Twenty
Over the next two minutes, Maksuti runs through her memories. She films winding lines at grocery stores with bare shelves, an empty Times Square soggy with rain, and the familiar hysteria of trying to trap a mouse. Her video has the familiar, concerted efforts at connection — an interactive neighborhood painting wall, learning a dance in the living room with a roommate — amid such expansive isolation — months of emptied city streets and masked walks.
The video is devastating and unexpected — an example of the emotional "jump scare" that TikTok's For You Page algorithm often serves up to its users at the expense of context or chronology.
Reliving this period — which was difficult for me and, given the pandemic's unequal impact, still far more difficult for millions of others — through Maksuti's random TikTok was jarring and surprisingly painful. Like other traumatizing experiences, these years had — unconsciously — become murky in my brain. In everyday conversation, it's hard to plot the period and events of the last few years chronologically. But, here, the FYP served up a sensory experience that could've been a dupe for my own.
While the pandemic may feel functionally over for many, footage of it exists forever online. On TikTok, it's liable to pop up randomly as long as it drives engagement.
The app's non-chronological algorithm — designed to prioritize engagement over linearity or context or even your own conscious, self-reported interests — can plunge users into emotional jump scares with the characteristic callous randomness of social media. One second, you're enjoying 45 of the other shades of the human experience — an exorbitant $2,000 Erewhon pizza or a comedian pretending to be the color pink learning there's a color named "hot pink" — and the next, you're reliving the early moments of the pandemic.
TikTok, it turns out, doesn't care about your triggers. Users have options to retroactively create guardrails; they can opt out of seeing videos with certain hashtags on their FYP or tap "not interested" on the content they want less of, or report content they think goes against community guidelines, but the app's content moderation is an imperfect net; a lot slips through.
Content related to sensitive and harmful topics, such as disordered eating, is plentiful. Even if the app doesn't allow content glorifying disordered eating, for example, it can still seep into banal videos or under the nutrition umbrella. If a certain word runs a creator a risk of being banned, they may adopt a pseudonym.
Instead of easily opting in to select discussions by searching for supportive communities themselves, TikTokers may be plunged into topics they'd rather avoid, and find themselves served information with the highest engagement versus the best information.
Maksuti's TikTok was an ultimately low-stakes version of what can come out of the app's engagement roulette wheel, but I wasn't alone in feeling triggered by its scenes. Viewers expressed feeling similarly sucker-punched, calling the footage "PTSD-inducing" and difficult to watch. The clip garnered more than 3,000 comments, many of which expressed surprise at their emotional response to seeing the early days of the pandemic.
"This is triggering, but also so beautiful, thank you," wrote one viewer of the semi-catharsis the footage brought for some. Maksuti, who said in the caption that she hadn't been able to watch the footage until March 2023, agreed: "It was hard for me to put together, but we made it."
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