What I learned from a week on TikTok
And no, it wasn't a dance.
Until recently, I wasn’t on TikTok. Like most millennials, I got my TikToks through Instagram, two weeks after they were originally published.
That changed seven days ago, when I put my reservations aside and plunged head-first into the infinite feed. There were two big reasons for this: i) I was intrigued by the app’s potential as a learning platform; ii) I needed something to write about for this week’s newsletter.
So here, in no particular order, are my reflections from a week in the TikTok trenches, and a few thoughts on what the platform can teach L&D.
TikTok understands what I care about (better than I do)
My first few hours on TikTok were overwhelming. Unlike other social-media platforms, there’s no clear off-ramp on the home screen; no quiet place you can go to collect your thoughts. Instead, you’re bombarded with ‘stuff’, which you can either choose to watch or swipe away.
Initially, the majority of the content was irrelevant to me – like an endless feed of auto-play Netflix trailers for shows I had no interest in watching. But before long, I landed on a video that I didn’t immediately swipe away: a #booktok review of Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.
After that, TikTok started feeding me more nerdy books about work and productivity. Then it started showing me hacks to use Outlook more effectively. Then it pivoted to videos on work-life balance. Then it recommended quick, healthy recipes.
What’s interesting about everything I learned on TikTok in the last week is that I didn’t seek any of it out. The app has a search function, but it’s frighteningly good at giving me what I want before I consciously know I want it.
It’s hard to imagine a workplace learning platform with feedback loops on a TikTok scale, but I do think there’s scope for L&D to create short, action-oriented resources that people are likely to find useful in the flow of work – like how to schedule bookable time in Outlook calendars, or how to use ChatGPT to create macros in Excel.
We may not have TikTok-level algorithms to tell us what learners care about. But we could always just ask them.
TikTokers crush the ‘What’s in it for me?’
Without wading into the minefield of attention spans (a topic for a future newsletter), it’s pretty clear that content on TikTok has just a few seconds to make an impression. Every video in the ‘For you’ feed is judged against the one that came before it, and the shiny, undefined promise of the one to follow. The best TikTokers know this, and are masters of articulating why a video is worthy of their viewers’ time and attention.
This is something we focus on whenever we scope a new project at Mind Tools. Whether you’re building an e-learning module or creating a job aid, a good question to ask is: ‘Why should my learners care about this?’
If you can’t answer that question in a way that’s persuasive to you, it’s probably not going to be persuasive to your learners.
TikToks are ideal for some forms of learning
One TikTok that did this particularly well was a recipe for baked gnocchi. Within the first few seconds, the video told me I would learn to prepare a dish that was simple, healthy, and delicious. I was sold.
While the gnocchi was, indeed, delicious and easy to prepare, I quickly discovered that a looping, 20-second TikTok may not be the best way to learn a recipe. I had to continually rewind the video to remind myself of the next step in the process, and unlock my phone whenever I wanted to double-check a measurement — obviously not an issue with a good old-fashioned cookbook.
That said, would I have even bothered to attempt the recipe if it weren’t for the glossy footage of the finished dish, or the enthusiasm of the nutritionist who posted the video? Maybe not.
From a learning-design perspective, TikTok is clearly not the most effective way to teach cooking. But my experience has led me to wonder if learners will choose to overcome design deficiencies, provided they’re given the motivation to do so.
Before writing this piece, my intention had been to download TikTok, use it for a week, then delete it. I told myself that the last thing I needed was another reason to look at my phone.
And yet, sitting here seven days later, I can’t quite bring myself to let go.
Maybe I’ll just stick around a little while longer... You know, out of professional curiosity.
🎧 On the podcast
Your L&D Dispatch co-author Ross G didn’t have quite the same experience when he joined TikTok. Perhaps he was just worse at training the algorithm, but his feed turned into nothing but Star Wars content and magic tricks. Addictive? Yes - but it didn’t make him happy.
So here’s something to reverse that trend! This week on The Mind Tools L&D Podcast, Henry Stewart of Happy joined Ross G and Gemma to revisit his Happy Manifesto: 10 principles to create a happy, empowered, workforce.
Here’s one bold claim from Herny that really jumped out to us:
Over the past five years, I've made no decisions at Happy... Since then, Happy has gone up 20% a year and that is because people are taking real ownership and real responsibility and real accountability for their actions.
To find out more, listen here:
📖 Deep dive
As readers of my interview with ChatGPT will know, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about AI, and its implications for the way we live. This interest led me to the work of Brian Christian and his book The Alignment Problem: How Can Artificial Intelligence Learn Human Values?
Based on expert interviews, the book explores the challenges of getting machine-learning systems to do what we want in a way that aligns with our values, and doesn’t perpetuate our existing biases and blindspots.
You can find details of all of Brian’s books at this website brianchristian.org, or find them at your local bookshop.
👹 Missing links
In keeping with the theme of this week’s newsletter, I wanted to recommend a recent episode of the Hard Fork podcast. On the show, host Casey Newton (author of the popular newsletter Platformer) visits TikTok’s ‘Transparency and Accountability Center’ and explores a learning experience, where he has to identify TikTok posts that violate the company’s community standards. Turns out it’s harder than he thinks.
Shock news last week from The Guardian: no one’s launching new podcasts anymore! 2021 saw a worldwide decline of 80% compared with the two previous years. But don’t worry, loyal Mind Tools L&D Podcast listeners: we were producing our show long before anyone was listening, and we’ll keep producing long after you’re all gone. 😉
Good news, Seinfeld fans! The 90s comedy classic has returned to our screens in the form of a never-ending Twitch stream, called Nothing, Forever. It’s entirely AI-generated, adapts based on feedback from the audience, and is utterly painful to watch. Is this the future of entertainment? Or is their more value in scarcity?
If you’ve grown tired of the challenges associated with remote working, @loewhaley’s TikTok account will likely strike a chord.
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