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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Sneaky Way TikTok Is Connecting You to Real-Life Friends

Unlike other social apps, TikTok didn’t become a global success by connecting people with their friends and family. Its stated mission is to “inspire creativity and build joy,” a far cry from Facebook’s goal to “bring the world closer together.” The app’s central feature, the For You Page algorithm, primarily recommends videos based on what users like, not whether they were uploaded by someone they know. But recently, it appears that’s started to change.

While TikTok to date has been an app where you could largely expect never to run into annoying uncles, ex-boyfriends, or coworkers, the platform is now making a greater effort to connect users to people they already have relationships with outside the platform. Eight TikTok users told WIRED that, over the past few months, the app has begun encouraging them to follow people from real life. It’s also become a common complaint among the TikTok faithful more broadly, raising privacy concerns about the tactics the app uses to establish who they know in the first place.

“The safety and privacy of our community is paramount, which is why we provide a range of privacy settings and opt-in features that empower people to customize their app experience to their own comfort and enjoyment,” a spokesperson for TikTok said in a statement.

Alex, a 27-year-old living in Queens, says that one night earlier this year she checked her TikTok notifications and was startled to realize that her father had followed her profile. She quickly blocked him, but the incident was unsettling because she often posts about being bisexual, something her father didn’t know about her at the time.

“While I had been considering coming out to him recently, I feel that choice was taken away from me,” Alex says. Her profile includes her name, but she still thought the risk of her father discovering it was low given how TikTok works. “I was surprised that he found me because of our differing beliefs and interests. I never would've guessed the algorithm would show him my videos, so I never worried about him finding my profile,” Alex says.


While it’s possible that her father actively sought out her account, he likely wouldn’t have even had to. Like many social media platforms, TikTok allows users to find people they know by syncing their phone contacts or Facebook friends. If you provided a phone number when you signed up and listed your age as over 16, by default TikTok will “suggest your account to phone contacts,” according to the app’s privacy settings. If someone has your number—and you provided it to TikTok—they can find your profile unless you actively opt out.

TikTok needs permission to access your contact list, but two users say they didn’t realize they had opted in to the feature until a WIRED reporter asked them to check. “I make a point never to do that,” says Michael Waters, a writer who lives in Brooklyn, who suspects he accidentally clicked on a pop-up message. A number of people on Twitter have also reported syncing their contacts with TikTok unwittingly.

There are other ways TikTok finds out who you know in real life. By default, the app suggests your profile “to people who have mutual connections with you.” That includes users who follow or are followed by the same accounts, like how Facebook recommends people to one another who have friends in common.

In May, TikTok began rolling out another feature that’s less standard. By default, it now suggests your account “to people who sent links to you or opened links you sent to them,” even on other apps. That means if you share a random TikTok video with a stranger on a dating site, it will show them your TikTok profile without any warning, as long as they click on the link. In return, you will receive a notification that they watched it prompting you to follow their account.

“Now when I share videos with people, I often get a notification telling me they've watched the video I've shared,” Eugene Wei, a former tech executive who previously published a series of viral essays about TikTok, wrote on his blog last month. “Often these notifications are the only way I know they even have a TikTok account and what their username is.”

It’s not clear exactly how the setting works, and TikTok declined to clarify. But tests indicate that TikTok automatically embeds a unique code associated with your account into the URL when you share a link outside the app. Media companies often use similar technology to detect, for example, how many readers clicked on a story in a newsletter, but the technique typically doesn’t identify each person individually.

TikTok’s Privacy Policy notes that if you use third-party services like Twitter or Facebook to “share information about your usage on the Platform with others, these third-party services may be able to collect information about you, including your activity on the Platform.” It also notes that “depending on the permissions you grant, the third party may be able to obtain your account information.”

Several TikTok users say the link feature caught them off guard, especially since other mainstream social media apps don’t work the same way. Waters says he sent a TikTok video to a friend a few weeks ago, who then shared the same link in her office’s Slack workspace. Suddenly, Waters started receiving notifications about which of the friend’s coworkers had watched it. Another user said they embedded a TikTok clip in a public blog post, and the app showed them the strangers that saw it.

“What I think is disturbing about it is how nonintuitive it is,” says Kashmir Hill, a technology and privacy reporter at The New York Times. “I don’t think anyone expects this kind of information to get passed along just based on a link.”

Hill previously reported extensively on Facebook’s controversial “People You May Know” system, which bears some similarities to what TikTok is doing. Unlike TikTok, Facebook doesn’t explicitly suggest accounts based on the sharing of links. The social network instead hoovers up users’ contact lists and other data, and then uses the info to recommend people they may know from real life. The feature was reportedly responsible for outing anonymous sex workers to their clients and recommending that a psychiatrist’s patients befriend one another.

TikTok has its own version of “People you may know.” Typically, when the app recommends someone’s account, it tells you what it’s basing the suggestion on. For example, it might indicate you follow a mutual friend or have the user’s number in your contacts.

Sometimes, though, TikTok simply says “People you may know,” and it’s not apparent how it made the suggestion. A spokesperson for TikTok said it uses multiple factors to recommend accounts, including whether you previously shared TikTok videos with the person.

One user WIRED spoke with said they recently saw a friend recommended as someone they may know, but couldn’t figure out how the app knew they had a relationship. They never added a phone number to their profile, but had texted the same friend a link to a video in July. (The user didn’t receive a notification that it had been viewed).

If you want to limit the ability of people to find your TikTok account, head to the settings menu located at the top right side of your profile. Tap Privacy > Suggest your account to others, and toggle off the settings for contacts, Facebook friends, mutual connections, and links. (All are disabled by default if your age is listed as under 16.) TikTok warns that even after you do this, your account “will still be suggested to people you’re following.”

If you want to unsync your phone contacts or Facebook friends, go to Privacy > Sync contacts and Facebook friends. There, you can delete all the contact and friends data that TikTok may have previously collected. Under Privacy, there’s also an option to turn your profile into a Private account. If you toggle it on, only users you approve can follow your account and watch your videos. All of these settings are off by default for anyone 16 and under.

While it may seem antithetical to TikTok’s culture, there are lots of reasons why it might be interested in learning more about your relationships in the physical world. Many people consume TikTok videos passively, and only share and engage with them on other apps like iMessage or Instagram. By encouraging users to follow people they know, TikTok may be trying to keep more of that activity inside its own ecosystem.

“They want you to move your entire social network into TikTok. That's what's most valuable for them,” says Ben Grosser, a professor of new media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the artist behind projects like Not For You, which explores TikTok’s video recommendation system. “The central focus is more time on site, more time in the app, more data from users, more contributions of content.”

The question is whether TikTok’s efforts will alienate its core user base, which fell in love with the platform because it provided an escape from their everyday lives. If users know their friends and family are watching, they could be less likely to share certain things or agonize more about how their videos will be perceived, reshaping the dynamics of the app in a way that’s not necessarily welcome.

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