Image Credit: Forbes

As revealed by Forbes and now confirmed by TikTok, employees can “heat” short-form videos to increase their presence on the For You page.

TikTok’s For You page is an industry leading feed of personalized short-form videos. As you scroll, liking, following and searching for videos, TikTok picks up on your behavior and tunes the feed to show you videos it thinks you’ll love. However, as uncovered by Forbes, from six current and former employees of TikTok and parent company ByteDance, alongside internal documents and communications, TikTok staff can hand-pick videos to supercharge their distribution, in a process internally known as “heating”.

The heating feature refers to boosting videos into the For You feed through operation intervention to achieve a certain number of video views. The total video views of heated videos accounts for a large portion of the daily total video views, around 1-2%, which can have a significant impact on overall core metrics.

The purpose of this feature is to promote diverse content, push important information, and support creators. If you make good use of it, heating resources will bring a leverage effect, a small amount of heating resources will bring about growth of midrange users, and a more diverse content pool.

Internal TikTok documents – ‘MINT Heating Playbook’

We think of social media as being very democratizing and giving everyone the same opportunity to reach an audience. To some degree, the same old power structures are replicating in social media as well, where the platform can decide winners and losers to some degree, and commercial and other kinds of partnerships take advantage.

Evelyn Douek, professor at Standford Law School and Senior Research Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University

Overall, this piece seems somewhat overblown. While TikTok has never publicly disclosed that it engages in “heating”, it’s hardly surprising. As far as I’m aware, at no point have TikTok claimed there is no human interaction in the For You feed. I doubt similar practices aren’t taking place on “personalized” feeds across other platforms.

The For You page is one of TikTok’s strongest pulls for users over other platforms. No one can deny its level of intelligence when it comes to accurately predicting your interests. Rarely does the feed seem to show content outside of your interests or videos that may have been “heated”. Giving the For You page the human-touch may be the secret sauce that keeps customers coming back.

Since Forbes published the piece, spokespeople for TikTok have come out to respond to the article.

We promote some videos to help diversify the content experience and introduce celebrities and emerging creators to the TikTok community. Only a few people, based in the U.S., have the ability to approve content for promotion in the U.S., and that content makes up approximately .002% of videos in For You feeds.

Jamie Favazza, spokesperson for TikTok

Under the national security agreement currently being considered by CFIUS, all protocols and processes for promoting videos in the United States would be auditable by CFIUS and third party monitors; only vetted TikTok USDS personnel would have the ability to “heat” videos in the U.S. In addition, source code review by Oracle will verify that there are no alternate means of promoting content.

Maureen Shanahan, spokesperson for TikTok

Generally, nothing malicious seems to be taking place here, providing employees are using the tool in the ways stated by the TikTok Heating Policy: “attract influencers”, “promote diverse content”, “push important information” and “promot[e] relevant videos that were missed by the recommendations algorithms.” The Forbes report goes on to say three sources claim to have witnessed instances where “heating” was used improperly by employees, to “heat” their own or spouses accounts, in violation of company policy.

Across social media platforms, content like ads and sponsored content must be clearly labeled. Favazza goes on to say “we’re continuing our work to expand our ‘why this video’ feature and provide more granularity and transparency to content recommendations.”

I hope TikTok are braced for a torrent of request from creators and brands asking to be “heated”!

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