Meet TikTok’s “heating” button, and the reason for so much buzz lately

TikTok's "heating" button, which allows employees to manually select which videos go viral, has raised questions about the platform's impartiality and the true nature of its personalized feed.

Updated: January 27, 2023

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TikTok’s For You Page was always known as a personalized algorithm feed, only based on user behavior. But is it, though? 

According to a recent investigation from Forbes, six current and former employees of TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, claim that this is not the whole story – and there are documents and communications that help to prove this allegation. 

These sources have revealed to the world an internal action known as “heating”, practiced by staff at TikTok and ByteDance.  This information has caused a stir because it has never been publicly disclosed before – at least until now. Quite the contrary, TikTok has always proudly positioned its For You Page as solely built by machine learning. 

Ok, but, what does this “heating” practice mean, and why has it caused so much fuss lately? If you asked yourself these questions, stay with us! We’ll bring the answers here in this article. 

So, what is this “heating” feature?

“Heating” is nothing more than an internal button (literally) that allows TikTok and ByteDance’s staff to pick specific videos to go viral. You read it right: there’s a way to manually boost videos’ reach using this “heating” button, and only internal people have access to it. 

“The heating feature refers to boosting videos into the For You feed through operation intervention to achieve a certain number of video views”, explains one of the internal TikTok documents reviewed by Forbes, called the MINT Heating Playbook. 

Still according to this document, “the total video views of heated videos account for a large portion of the daily total video views, around 1-2%, which can have a significant impact on overall core metrics”. This means that for every 100 videos watched per user, 1 or 2 were manually selected using the heating button. And the tricky part is you can’t tell which ones. 

And what’s the main concern behind the “heating” button? 

With this information coming to light – and with TikTok itself confirming its veracity, it’s no wonder people (including brands, creators, and influencers) have started to question TikTok’s impartiality, and the whole “personalized feed built by algorithm” speech has lost its strength. 

And according to the Forbes investigation, unfortunately, these suspicions are not unfounded. Three other sources confirm to Forbes that some employees used the heating feature improperly, for personal interest. For example, boosting their personal accounts or accounts of people they know personally. 

Also, these same sources claim that the company itself uses the heating button for its own benefits, boosting brands and influencers that it seeks for partnerships. 

On the face of it all, TikTok and ByteDance tried to defend themselves, claiming that only a few people have access to this button, and its use is just to bring more diversity to the platform. But, for now, this whole story is still a case of “she said he said”. Perhaps we’ll be able to follow up with further investigations and clarifications in the near future. 

Personally, I honestly can see some opportunities for this controversial button. After all, it is undeniable that diversity in the digital environment needs allies to have the visibility and the reach it deserves, but we’ll still need more information and transparency to know if this is in fact the only purpose behind this feature. Let’s see what comes out of this story. 

As a marketer, I know how important it is to stay on top of the latest trends and best practices. That’s why I personally subscribe to The Beat, Rock Content’s interactive newsletter. It’s my go-to source for all things digital marketing, and I think it should be yours too.

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