The Wizard and the Algorithm

I’ve been on TikTok for a while now and have gone mildly viral there for two types of videos I’ve made. The first time I went viral was making videos featuring a shark hand puppet ambushing me with metal songs. The second time I went viral was making videos talking about Skyrim, one of my favorite games of all time. (I made one criticizing the Stormcloaks two years ago and it’s still getting semi-regular engagement.) So one would think I’d still be making shark puppet and Skyrim videos to continue growing my audience, right?

Nope. I’m dressing up in a low-budget DIY wizard outfit and pretending I’m a mage.

Here’s the thing about TikTok’s uniquely frustrating social media algorithm: it will pick, seemingly at random, a video of yours to show everyone on the app, but the moment you deviate in any way from the formula of that viral video it will act as though you never existed.

The first time one of my zero-effort shark puppet metal videos went viral I woke up to gaining five thousand new followers overnight. It felt great! So I kept making more shark puppet videos! My followers doubled in a month! Amazing! With ten thousand followers I figured I could show them what else I could do! The moment I put up a quiet video featuring my son and I on a nature walk, my numbers for all future shark puppet videos took a nosedive.

The second time was much like the first. I made a zero-effort video about Skyrim that blew up overnight. Several similar Skyrim videos followed, gaining lots of engagement and loads of new followers! And then, once again, because I had an idea to do something different, future videos were barely seen by any of my thousands of followers. Only the videos that followed the formula of the previous ones got any views at all.

TikTok is neat but its creatively stifling. Deviation from the thing that made you viral is seemingly punished by the app’s algorithm. So if you want to keep your audience, you need to do the same thing over and over and over again. I cannot imagine a greater nightmare.

So I gave the algorithm a big “fuck you” and started pretending to be a wizard.

I don’t plan to ever go viral with these. I don’t have the costume budget of a dedicated cosplayer, nor am I young or attractive enough to warrant strangers dueting scenes with my DIY spellcaster. I’m basically doing this for my own amusement and it’s been the most creatively liberating choice I’ve made on that silly app.

Maybe TikTok’s soul-sucking algorithm is teaching us a larger lesson. If you’re ever lucky enough to catch a break with your creative endeavors you have a choice to make: either keep doing what everyone wants and expects of you over and over again, or try new things to keep yourself happy while running the risk of no one seeing your experiments.

I’ll choose the latter every time.