July 22, 2021

#177 Gleeks and Gurgles

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

Producer Anna Foley tries to answer a question that’s been bothering her for a long time: What makes the TikTok algorithm so good at knowing what she wants to watch? On her quest to find out, her sister asks another, more unexpected, question.

Transcript

EMMANUEL DZOTSI: Hey folks! Just a quick note before we start the show: you know, depending on where you are, we’ve been living in this pandemic for more than 18 months at this point. I know, you don’t need me to tell you that. In some places things are opening up, in others, they’re just not.

But, here at the show, we’re looking to hear from people right now who are living in both of these realities. We really want to talk to people who find themselves in a real moment of change, more than 18 months into this pandemic. And really the people that I personally want to hear from are people of color — and I especially want to hear from Black people. Like, Black people, wherever you are around the world, I want to hear from you. Because, well, I don’t know, I love us.

So tell me: how are you feeling about the past year and a half? Is there some big life change you’ve been waiting to make once the so-called end of this pandemic arrives? Write to us, let us know at replyall@gimletmedia.com — once again, that’s replyall@gimletmedia.com. And please use the subject line ‘18 Months In.’ 

All right, let’s start the show.

From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Emmanuel Dzotsi.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman. 

EMMANUEL: Well, hello, Monsieur Goldman. 

ALEX: Thank you for calling me Monsieur Goldman. It made me feel— it made me feel like I was in a fancy restaurant.

EMMANUEL: I just want all our listeners to know that we’re recording on July 14th, which is Alex Goldman Day, because it is your birthday. 

ALEX: Mmm… I feel like people are going to use this to try and get into, like, my personal accounts. So, I'd like you to just— if we could just bleep that when this goes to air, that'd be great. [LAUGHS]

EMMANUEL: I, I mean, if you use your birthday for your password, we have bigger questions. But all right, yes. We are not here to talk about your birthday. Um, we’re here because we  actually have a story from one of our producers, Anna Foley. Hi, Anna.

ALEX: Hi, Anna.

ANNA FOLEY: [LAUGHS] Hey. Hey, guys. 

ALEX: Hi, hi, producer Anna Foley.

ANNA: Uh, happy birthday, Alex. 

ALEX: Thank you.

ANNA: So, I’m here to tell you guys a story that I’ve been working on. Um, it’s about TikTok.

EMMANUEL: Okay.

ALEX: Are you like a— are you like a big TikTok user? Like, what would you say the percentage of your internet diet is TikTok?

ANNA: Mmhmm. Basically, like, TikTok is— it has replaced Twitter and Instagram as the thing I’m scrolling on when I’m laying in bed and like, can’t sleep, or I’m trying to fall asleep. And, and I think part of the reason that’s happened is because TikTok is just like, really good at predicting what I want to see next.

ALEX: Mmhmm.

ANNA: So, for people who, like, maybe haven’t used TikTok, basically the way it works is, you open the app and it immediately shows you a video. You don’t have to search for anything. You don’t have to really necessarily even follow anybody. It just recommends you one video after another. Um—

ALEX: It's like standing under a waterfall of short videos and just letting them wash over you.

[EMMANUEL LAUGHS]

ANNA: Yeah. I think it is kind of like that. And as you’re watching all these videos, with each swipe, basically, like, TikTok is able to, like, zero in on exactly what my interests are, sometimes creepily so. 

ALEX: Wait, what do you mean?

ANNA: I mean, just like, compared to other places on the internet, like Instagram and YouTube and Twitter, I guess, TikTok is able to serve me videos that are so specifically tailored to things about me? That, like, I know about myself and, like, maybe you guys, as my coworkers and friends, know about me. But like, TikTok has no right to know, in a way that I’m just like, how on earth is it doing this? Um, like, the— I guess I’m just gonna fully say the most embarrassing one.

EMMANUEL: Yeah. Now I’m just— now I just really want to know how—

ALEX: Yeah.

EMMANUEL: …whether, like, there are things we know about you that TikTok doesn’t.

ANNA: Well, I mean, okay. So like, this is so embarrassing. Um, Damiano, like, mocked me for it...

ALEX: [LAUGHING] Ah, it feels good not to be the person who has to embarrass himself on the show anymore.

ANNA: [LAUGHS] Um, I mean—

ALEX: Let’s go, Anna.

ANNA: I was a theater kid in like, the aughts and 2010s.

EMMANUEL: Uh-huh.

ANNA: And so, like a lot of theater kids in the aughts and 2010s...

ALEX: [WHISPERS] Spit it out.

ANNA: …I really liked Glee. Uh, and—

ALEX: I, I was expecting that you had killed someone after that [CROSSTALK]. You liked Glee?

EMMANUEL: Yeah. Especially with like, the theater kid intro.

ANNA: Um, but one of, like, the very first TikToks that TikTok served to me was about Glee. it was for Gleeks, like, former Gleeks, or—and I was just like, oh my God.

EMMANUEL: [LAUGHING] Sorry, I want to rewi-… I want to rewind. There was such an ease to which you were just like—

ANNA: Gleeks?

EMMANUEL: Yeah, it’s for people like me. Gleeks.

ANNA: Gleeks. Um, yeah. It—that’s embarrassing. That’s embarrassing.

[ALEX LAUGHS]

ANNA: Anyways, whatever. Um, I haven’t really interacted with anything Glee-related in like, almost a decade. And then suddenly, I’m just like, scrolling through TikTok, and it presents me with, like, this extremely niche Glee joke? But like, how did TikTok know that I would get this joke, you know? And it wasn’t just that one embarrassing niche thing about me. 

Like, TikTok started showing me other things that I was just like, how on earth do you know this? Like, there was a period of time where I was getting TikToks that were being filmed from my old high school.

EMMANUEL: Oh.

ANNA: … I noticed that cinder blo-… like, I recognize that cinder block. I recognize that hallway. Is that Leesville Road High School? And then, sure enough, it was my old high school. TikTok was serving me in like, the mix of things that were very tailored to my interests, like fashion and food, and like, the outdoors, it was throwing in these little things, where I was like, this is so specific to me.

And I just couldn’t wrap my head around what TikTok was doing. 

ALEX: Mmhmm.

ANNA: Like, how was it so good? So much better than like, anything else I’d used before? And I wanted to know if I was the only one feeling this, or like, did anybody else feel the same way? So I was asking everybody in my life about this, like friends, family… I put out a call to Reply All listeners and got like, hundreds of people agreeing with me, saying they also had these weird, uncanny experiences on TikTok. 

EMMANUEL: Huh.

ANNA: But I was talking to my sister about it. She’s 23. She watches, you know, her fair share of TikToks. And she was the first person who just like, completely shut me down. Basically, she said to me, like, “Anna, I think you’re kinda overthinking this.”

But then, a few weeks later, my sister, very sheepishly, I might add, was like, “Um, so about that TikTok question.” So I called her.

ANNA: Um… so.

[EMILY LAUGHS]

ANNA: You wanna introduce yourself?

EMILY FOLEY: Hi.

ANNA: Oh my God. Sound like a human, please.

EMILY: What? I, I am sounding like a human.

ANNA: Hi!

EMILY: Ugh. Let me talk. [CLEARS THROAT] Hi, I’m Emily. I’m Anna’s sister.

ANNA: And she was like, [SIGHS] “I’ve been thinking about the TikTok thing, and like, there is a TikTok that the algorithm served me that I just can’t explain.”

ALEX: Ooh.

ANNA: Um. Okay, so I sent Emmanuel the TikTok.

EMMANUEL: All right… oh, here we go. Okay. So, I just pulled it up. In big letters, it says, “My weird medical story.”

ANNA: Yeah. So can you, can you play it?

EMMANUEL: Okay. Let me start it. Here we go.

SPEAKER: Put a finger down if for your entire life, you’ve been unable to burp, and instead of burping, you make these really awkward and embarrassing croaking noises that kinda sound like this: [CROAKS] 

[EMMANUEL LAUGHS] 

for a period of a couple hours as the air slowly leaves your body. And not to mention, it is super uncomfortable. So you go to a bunch of different doctors...

EMILY: Her entire life—

ANNA: Mm-hmm.

EMILY: …she had never been able to burp like a normal person.

ANNA: Mmhmm.

EMILY: And my jaw dropped to the floor.

ANNA: Well, why, why did, why, why did your jaw drop to the floor?

EMILY: Because I am burdened with the same affliction. I have the same thing. I’m the same way.

ANNA: So my sister is like, the exact same way as the person in this TikTok. She’s never been able to burp.

EMMANUEL: Wait, wait, wait. Just to back up—

ANNA: Yeah.

EMMANUEL: … one, there are people who can’t burp?

ANNA: Yeah. Well, I mean—

ALEX: Listen. The urban legend is if you serve a— if you give a seagull Alka-Seltzer, and they, they will- they’re- they will explode because they can’t burp. 

[LAUGHTER]

EMMANUEL: What?

ALEX: Now, if your sister can’t burp— you guys don’t know about this?

ANNA: No!

ALEX: This is— for years, my entire life, people have been like—

EMMANUEL: What— how did you—

ALEX: … people have been like, “Give a bird Alka-Seltzer, give a seagull Alka-Seltzer—

ANNA: Oh my God.

ALEX: … “and a piece of bread, and it’ll fly away and then explode.” Obviously not true.

EMMANUEL: Why—

ALEX: And also, I would never try it, because that’s sadistic. But your sister would explode. It’s impossible, that she can’t burp. It’s crazy. [LAUGHTER] It’s, it’s giving a bird Alka-Seltzer crazy.

ANNA: I mean, my sister is definitely not a seagull… she just can’t burp… um, but back to TikTok, when this video popped up on her FYP, she just like, needed to tell everyone in her life about it.

EMILY: I sent it to, like, four different group chats.

ANNA: Uh-huh.

EMILY: I sent it to my best friends .

ANNA: Uh-huh.

EMILY: I sent it, I believe, to you. 

ANNA: Uh-huh.

EMILY: And then I just watched it, like, four times.

ANNA: [LAUGHING] With every time, were you just like, noticinglike, what, whatwere you learning something new every time, or were you just

EMILY: No. 

ANNA: [LAUGHS] You were just like, shocked?

EMILY: I was, I was just sitting in the feeling.

AF: She just could not believe that TikTok had given her a video about the exact weird medical thing she has

EMMANUEL: So, so, maybe this is a premature question, and I’m sorry to be uncouth, but like, [LAUGHS] where, where does the hot air go?

ANNA: Okay. Well, uhhh… 

[LAUGHTER] 

ALEX: I’m laughing both at the question because it’s an obvious question, and I’m sorry for—I’m sorry to be uncouth, which is like, such a, such a sweet thing to say. [LAUGHS]

ANNA: Yes, it’s very sweet, very proper. But to answer the question, basically, all of that air, it just doesn’t go anywhere.

ANNA: What does that feel like?

EMILY: It’s, it’s like a buildup of, of air in your gut, and you feel bloated.

ANNA: Uh-huh.

EMILY: And it starts moving its way upward. 

ANNA: Does it movelike, is it quick? Is it slow? Like, does it just like

EMILY: It’s very slow. And it lands sort of in the middle of my chest.

ANNA: Mm-hmm.

EMILY: And then it just gets stuck there.

ANNA: The only way for her to release it is this sound. It’s like the sound that you heard in that TikTok, the sound that the woman described in that TikTok— 

EMMANUEL: The [CROAKS] sound?

ANNA: Yeah. Emily calls it her gurgles. And the way I’ve always thought about them is that they sound like a creaky door, mixed with a bullfrog, mixed with the girl from The Grudge.

ALEX: [LAUGHING] Oh, the girl from The Grudge. Okay. But I know exactly what you’re talking about, that’s very vi— you’re painting a vivid picture, thank you.

ANNA: You’re welcome. I did that for you. 

Um. The thing you need to understand about Emily’s gurgles is that they can happen anywhere, at any time. And she actually doesn’t really have a ton of control over when they’re gonna happen, you know? It’s not like she can do them in private. She might be around a big group of people…

ANNA: Do people, do people feel the need to, um, tell you about their bodily functions?

EMILY: No. What I get is people bragging about being able to burp.

ANNA: [LAUGHS] Like, they tell you about their greatest hits of their burps?

EMILY: Yes! They’re like, they’re like, “Uh, I love burping. It’s just so good.” [ANNA LAUGHING] And I’m so bitter.

ANNA: Do you wanna burp? I guess that’s a question I have, is like, do you, do you wanna be able to burp?

EMILY: Yes, of course I wanna be able to burp.

ANNA: Really?

EMILY: Who doesn’t?!

ANNA: I guess this is my burping privilege. I’ve just— ‘cause I’ve always done it, it doesn’t feel, um, like, uh, aspirational, I guess. Like—

EMILY: Oh my God. Just to be able to have one of those little burps that just happens inside of your mouth… [ANNA LAUGHS] It’s a dream.

ANNA: [STILL LAUGHING] It’s a dream. 

[MUSIC]

ANNA: Honestly, like, before I talked to my sister about this, and before I started working on this story, like, the fact that my sister couldn’t burp, it was just kind of like, something I would sometimes talk about at parties. 

ALEX: Yeah, it's like a piece of trivia. 

ANNA: Exactly. Exactly. And everybody would always just be like, ‘Whoa, what?’ 

But talking to her now, it was actually one of the first times that like, I wasn’t only focusing on the fact that it was funny or quirky, but I was starting to understand how hard it could actually be for her, the- the inability to burp.

EMMANUEL: Oh, like, it’s like—

ANNA: It’s not—

EMMANUEL: …actually like, a difficult thing for her. It’s not just that she can’t do it. It’s actually a kinda shit time.

ANNA: Yeah.

EMILY: Like, a minor gurgle actually feels kind of nice.

ANNA: Uh-huh.

EMILY: But a painful one, it's like a burning sensation in my chest. 

ANNA: Ouchie.

EMILY: So, in addition to having this like, insane, bloated feeling like I'm going to explode in my gut—

ANNA: Yeah. Yeah.

EMILY: … I have this burning sensation in my chest. 

ANNA: Yeah.

EMILY: Um, and then I'm not, I'm not very much fun anymore. 

ANNA: It’s especially hard because she’s a singer. And when she’s up on stage, she’s just like, wondering and worrying, like, am I gonna gurgle in the middle of a song? And if I gurgle, am I gonna lose control of my voice?

ALEX: Ugh.

EMMANUEL: Oh, man. Yeah, that’s really— that, that would make me really anxious. 

ANNA: Yeah. And she’d never actually met another person with this problem, with this no-burp problem. And so, when she was like, watching this video, it was the first time in her life that she saw someone say, like, “Hey, I have this, too.” It was like Emily had just stumbled across proof that, like, what she was suffering from was real.

And so, like, when my sister— she, like, got this on TikTok of all places, she told me that it almost felt like fate. Um, when she told me that, I have to say, I did not feel the same way. I think I'm like, a little less faith-filled. I believe maybe a little bit less in the universe. Um, and so, I walked away from our conversation wanting to know, like, was there a reason that this happened? 

From my experiences with the TikTok algorithm, it seemed really, really powerful. But I wanted to know, like, was that true, and was it actually powerful enough to have somehow figured out to serve my sister this video about something that was just so, so personal to her? 

EMMANUEL: Oh, like, what was it about the TikTok algorithm that, like, gave her such a personal, like, video? 

ANNA: Right.  

So, I went on a journey to find out. And that’s after the break.

[MUSIC]

ANNA: Welcome back to the show.

So, guys, the first thing I just, like, wanted to try to understand was, if the TikTok algorithm was even remotely powerful enough to have known to serve my sister, who cannot burp, a video about not being able to burp?

ALEX: Mm-hmm. That makes sense.

ANNA: Yeah. Like, I had had this feeling that TikTok was uniquely good at recommending me stuff, and other people had thought so too. But I just, like, wanted to know, like, is that feeling true? Like, was this, like, a new and different technology?

And so, I went out and I talked to a handful of experts. And I want to introduce you to one. His name is Eugene Wei. He’s a former product executive. He’s worked in the tech space for, like, decades—

EMMANUEL: Mmhmm.

ANNA: … at places like Amazon and Hulu. Um, his life work is basically, like, improving these sites, trying to make them run better and smarter and faster. And he first got interested in an early version of TikTok back in 2015.

EUGENE WEI: I was at a friend’s house, and we were in the kitchen waiting for dinner to come, and I heard all this banging upstairs. 

ANNA: Uh-huh. [LAUGHS] 

EUGENE: And when dinner was ready, um, his daughter came down with her high school friend.

ANNA: Mm-hmm.

EUGENE: And I was like, [LAUGHS] “What was going on upstairs with all that noise?” 

ANNA: Right. Yeah. ‘What were you doing?’ [LAUGHS]

EUGENE: And they were like, “Oh, we’re making this video. We’ll show you.” And they opened the phone to this little dance lip sync video they had made, and started explaining the app to me. [LAUGHS] And it was fascinating to see this new app that they were really into.

ANNA: This was in the early days of TikTok, right? Like, it was just millions of teens across the country just like, dancing and lip syncing, you know? 

ALEX: Mmhmm. 

ANNA: Um, but quickly, Eugene says that he starts to see TikTok just everywhere. He watched it just become so so popular, become one of the most used apps in the world. And he was really interested in just like, understanding how it worked and what made it so addictive, you know?

EMMANUEL: Right.

ANNA: And TikTok is constantly tweaking and like, changing their algorithm. They have said some stuff generally about the algorithm, like, not only about how it works, but also how it might use data outside of the app.

EMMANUEL: Right. Because I feel like, I do open TikTok a couple of times, and recently it’s done this thing where it’s like, shown me, like, oh, this person in your contacts is here, like, watch them. And I’m like, wait, oh right, I signed that over to you. Like that’s a thing, you know?

ANNA: Right, right right right. Like, if you actually look at the privacy policy that TikTok has, it kind of just like leaves the door open for TikTok to get a lot of personal information like that, both from your phone and from third parties. The thing that, like, is weird is that they ask for so much of this information, but we still actually don’t know whether they’re like, actually doing things with all that information? 

EMMANUEL: Ohhh.

ANNA: I reached out to TikTok for this story and they didn’t want to record an interview…  they pointed me to some of the information they’d already made public. And so, what’s left is like, really just looking at the app, using it a ton, and then also comparing it to all the other recommendation technology that’s out there.

So that’s what I did.

ALEX: Got it. 

And when I was doing that, I really did feel like I was getting one step closer to understanding how my sister may have gotten this video about not being able to burp.

So, first, I kind of just like, want to explain to you guys, as best as we can tell… what the TikTok algorithm is doing. 

ALEX: Mm-hmm. 

EMMANUEL: Mm-hmm. 

ANNA: So, according to the experts I talked to when somebody uploads a video to TikTok, that video is going, it's going under a microscope where the algorithm is looking at it and scanning for what's in the video. 

[MUSIC]

Some experts, including Eugene, call them attributes. It's things like, is there a dog at 32 seconds in? You know, is somebody showing their face? What is the person saying? What are the subtitles saying? 

EUGENE: But it's not as simple as that because every video can have dozens and dozens of features. 

ANNA: Yeah.

EUGENE: What music is used, what's the setting? Uh, what are the tags that are applied to that video?

ANNA: All of these attributes, it seems like they come together to make a long dictionary definition of what exactly is in the video.

EMMANUEL: Mmm.

ANNA: The next thing that 100 percent know for sure that it's doing is, it’s monitoring your attention. And like, what that means is that it’s watching how far you’re making it into a video. It’s watching to see if you comment on something, if you share it. Um, all of those actions are signs that you’re enjoying the video and that you want to keep seeing more like it. 

ALEX: Got it.

EMMANUEL: Ah, so it doesn't actually— when I think I'm being cute on TikTok and like, I'm like, “Okay, I'm not going to get sucked back into, like, weird white people why-did-you-make-this like, unseasoned chicken breast” TikTok— [ALEX LAUGHING] like, when that happens and I just watch it, but I don't like it, because I watched it all the way through—

ANNA: Yup.

EMMANUEL: …it's still getting— it's still going to give me that stuff. 

ANNA: Yeah. TikTok is like, “While you say you don't like it, you watched it all the way through, Emmanuel. Like, let's be honest here. You wanted to know if they were going to put salt on that chicken at some point. So you watched it.” 

EMMANUEL: The thing about these videos that's so frustrating to me is like, I know that they know that what they're doing is ridiculous. 

ANNA: Yes. Like, 100%. But like, you still watched it. 

Um, anyways. So, that’s the basics of how the TikTok recommendation algorithm seems to work. And like, we interact with algorithms like this all the time. Like, everywhere you go, you're going to run into an algorithm that's trying to recommend you stuff. So for Netflix, it’s movies. YouTube, it’s just like, shorter videos. But like, the thing is, all of those recommendations feel pretty bad to me, honestly? I never watch anything that Netflix recommends me. But I enjoy most everything that TikTok serves me. It’s just so much better at taking that next step that those other algorithms aren't doing. 

And so, I wondered why? Like, what is it doing differently?

And after talking to Eugene and the other experts, I think it boils down to two things that TikTok is just doing better than anybody else. 

The first thing: it’s getting a really clear idea of what exactly we like and don’t like. And the way it’s doing that has everything to do with how the app itself is designed. Like I said, TikTok is an incredibly simple app. It just shows you one video at a time.

EUGENE: That is pretty unique.

ANNA: Yeah.

EUGENE: And the only other app that, uh, I think has something comparable is an app like Tinder.

ANNA: I was not expecting you to say Tinder. I was like, what is it? [LAUGHTER] Tinder, oh, my God. It, it kinda is, yeah.

EUGENE: Right? Yeah. Tinder created the iconic swipe right/swipe left—

ANNA: Uh-huh.

EUGENE: ...um, user interface interaction. And that's important in that case because they, they do want to match you to people that you have clearly, explicitly said you're interested in. 

ANNA: Yeah.

EUGENE: And the same was the, uh, case for TikTok. 

[MUSIC]

ANNA: TikTok is designed so that, if you are enjoying a video, you just keep watching it. You do nothing. And then, as soon as you see something in that video that you don’t like, or something that even like, mildly disinterests you, you swipe away. So TikTok figures out very quickly what you’re not interested in. And Eugene says that is really, really rare.

EUGENE: A lot of our social media today is only positive sentiment oriented. 

ANNA: Mm-hmm. 

EUGENE: There's, there's no dislike button on Facebook. 

ANNA: Yeah.

EUGENE: Uh, there's no dislike button, necessarily, on Twitter. And when you only capture positive sentiment—

ANNA: Uh-huh.

EUGENE: … the danger is you have a blind spot to things that mildly annoy or disturb people.

ANNA: Uh-huh.

EUGENE: In real life, humans are very attuned to this. You know, if you're with your friends or your family or your significant other, and you do something that bothers them, they might not actively come out and say, “Oh, you're annoying me,” or something like that. But you pick up on their body language—

ANNA: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Yeah.

EUGENE: … and you realize, you, you know, and you adjust, uh, based on that. That's a really important feedback loop in just the social world generally. 

ANNA: Yeah. 

EUGENE: And TikTok figured out an interface that allowed them to capture positive and negative sentiment really cleanly in these short videos.

ANNA: Yeah. Like body language.

EUGENE: Yeah, it almost is a form of that. 

ANNA: So, the second reason that, like, TikTok is just like, blowing everything else in, like, the recommendation world, like, out of the water—

EMMANUEL: Mm-hmm.

ANNA: …is just like, the amount of information that it's collecting about the users. So, like, just to think about Netflix, you're going to Netflix dot com. You're picking one movie, and you're watching it for two hours. 

And so, compare that to TikTok. Those videos are short. They're like, one minute long. So, you’re giving TikTok feedback on, like, 40 or 50 videos in the same amount of time that you would spend watching a movie. And what that means is you’re just shooting a fire hose of data into TikTok’s algorithm.

And Eugene says it’s that fire hose that has pushed TikTok’s algorithm into just, like, a league of its own.

[MUSIC]

EUGENE: I think there was a period, uh, in the mid-era of the internet where we thought that artificial intelligence wasn't that intelligent.

ANNA: Yeah.

EUGENE: Uh, you know, I still get frustrated using my voice assistant sometimes when it doesn't understand what I'm saying. And I think what we saw was that what it took for artificial intelligence and machine learning to take that next step up in quality was the massive, massive amount of data. And what you see is a quantum leap. And that may be how we just experience artificial intelligence in the future—

ANNA: Uh-huh.

EUGENE: ... It will look terrible to us until the moment that it's good. And that moment when it's good, it will become very good. 

ANNA: Yeah.

EUGENE: Um, and, and I feel like that's what I experience sometimes when I use TikTok.

ANNA: You're kind of getting a glimpse into the future a little bit. Is that exciting to you?

EUGENE: I, I think it is exciting. It's also daunting at the same time. 

ANNA: [LAUGHS] Yeah, yeah.

What I learned about the TikTok algorithm from talking to Eugene and, like, all of these other experts, is that it’s uniquely good at quickly and accurately figuring people out. Like, understanding what we like and we don't, and then predicting what we'll enjoy next.

EMMANUEL: Mm-hmm.

ANNA: But I should also just say— this recommendation algorithm. It’s not this perfect hermetically sealed lab where it’s only just trying to figure you out. There are instances where pretty ugly stuff has happened on TikTok.

EMMANUEL: Yeah, like, I was, I was going to say, like — I mean, I feel like that stuff’s not even necessarily happened with the algorithm. Like, I just know TikTok has been allegedly discriminatory even when it comes to stuff like how they moderate the app. 

ANNA: Yeah. Like, there's been a lot of reporting, really great reporting, on how, like, certain content on the app has been really hard to find. Like, there was a period last summer where it seemed like TikTok was suppressing content about Black Lives Matter and George Floyd and people who were using those hashtags. TikTok later said that that was because of a quote “technical glitch” in the app. 

Also, back in 2019, there was a ton of reporting on how moderation standards at the time  were basically burying the content from queer creators, fat creators, people with disabiltiies...

EMMANUEL: Jesus.

ALEX: Wow.

ANNA: Yeah. All that to say, like, this recommendation algorithm, TikTok's, it's anything but perfect. 

EMMANUEL: And yet, it is like— even though it seems to be doing some really heinous stuff, it does also at the same time seem to be doing, like, a good job of like, really picking up on what you're looking for—

ANNA: Yeah.

EMMANUEL: … even with all these filters and stuff on there. 

ANNA: It's really— I mean, it's just really complicated. But the thing is, I still had this question, right? Which is, what did it know about my sister, that it knew to serve her this video about not being able to burp. 

EMMANUEL: Right. Right, right.

ANNA: But the problem is that, like, at this point in my reporting I didn’t know that much about, like, the actual inability to burp. LIke the condition itself.  And so, I went to someone I thought could help me.

ANNA: Hey, Brittany.

BRITTANY SANGASTIANO: Hi!

ANNA: How’s it going?

BRITTANY: I just got out of the shower, so my hair is drying, so—

ANNA: No worries. No worries.

ANNA: This is Brittany Sangastiano. She made the original TikTok video that my sister saw. She likes to make Youtube, TikTok, and Instagram TV videos as a hobby, but she’d actually never made a video about not being able to burp until December 2020, when she decided to post about it.

ANNA: Do you kind of feel like you're kind of the leader of the no-burpers on TikTok? 

BRITTANY: [LAUGHING] Oh, my God. Um, honestly, possibly? It was funny because someone commented on one of my YouTube videos and was like, “Oh, my God, I watch your videos. I can't believe that you're no-burp girl.” 

[ANNA LAUGHS] 

BRITTANY: Or, like, someone else— there was some other comment that was like, “Oh, my gosh, did everyone see the burping girl video this week?” And I was like, oh, my God, I cannot believe this. Like, is that— is this my legacy on the internet? Like, I am burping girl? 

ANNA: Brittany told me that when she posted the burping video, my sister wasn’t the only no-burper who found it. 

BRITTANY: Right away, people started commenting, like, “Oh my God, I have this too.”

ANNA: Hmm.

Brittany: And so, somehow right away, TikTok was able to show people— show it to people who had this issue somehow. And right now, it has over 7,000 comments. The vast majority of them being, “Oh my God, I have this.” So, that was kind of mind-blowing to me. And that’s part of the reason that I think it blew up. Like, I really do think that most of the people who watched and liked the video—

ANNA: Hmm.

BRITTANY: … did have the no-burp issue.

[MUSIC]

ANNA: Brittany had not expected this response at all. But when I was talking to her about it, it actually made me think of something I learned when I was reporting on the algorithm itself.

One of the most important ways TikTok works is that, yeah, it figures out what you like, and it serves you more things like that. But then also, on top of that, it shows you things that people like you like. It basically just sorts you into a bunch of these little groups. And that’s why on TikTok you get all these highly specific subcultures. Like booktok and IBS-tok and thrifting-tok. 

So, I wondered, did no-burpers have something in common that TikTok had managed to figure out and put them into one of these little highly specific groups?

And I thought Brittany might understand the most about the DNA of this little no-burp subculture on TikTok, because she had kind of started it, you know? And it turned out that, like, she’d been kind of thinking about it as well. And she had some theories. And they were theories that I was curious to try out on my sister. 

So I called Emily. She was at home, watching my parents’ dogs. 

EMILY: Yeah. Should I start recording?

ANNA: Yeah, start recording. [DOGS BARKING]

EMILY: Do you want me to go tell the ladies that I’m busy being a podcaster? 

ANNA: No. Well, I’m sure they’ll stop eventually. [LAUGHS] 

EMILY: Will they, though?

ANNA: Um, I told my sister about Brittany’s first theory. Um, and it had to do with, like, how Brittany had become a no burper in the first place. Basically, as a kid, she had had a really bad stomach bug, and because of that, she developed emetophobia, which is the fear of vomiting.

EMMANUEL: Mm.

ANNA: Um, basically, like, the way that, like, no burp manifested through that is, like, her body basically decided that things can go down our throats but not up.And so, Brittany theorized that, like, maybe this origin story is just a lot more common. And she’s actually talked about emetophobia in, like, some follow-up TikToks. And so, she thought maybe the algorithm had served this video to people who were watching other emetophobia content on TikTok.

ALEX: Hm. 

ANNA: And so, I asked my sister about that, like, if she thought that that held any water. 

EMILY: Right. 

ANNA: Do you think that’s—do you have a fear of vomiting? 

EMILY: No. I, I don’t—I can’t think of any really, like, traumatic vomit events that I might have had that would have caused that.

ANNA: So that, that doesn’t explain why you got it. 

EMILY: No.

ANNA: Um, emetophobia, like, might be the reason other people got this TikTok, but it wasn’t true for Emily. 

So, the next theory, Brittany’s next theory, it had to do with her TikTok account. So, originally, Brittany’s account, like, had nothing to do with no burp, right? It was actually all about curly hair. Brittany has this, like, voluminous, beautiful, healthy, like, mop of curls.

VIDEO BRITTANY: Let’s talk about how to get volume with curly hair. First off, I recommend that every curly get layers cut in. Do not be afraid— 

ANNA: Um, and so, like, all of her videos are, like, very fun, like, use these products. This is how you should wet and dry your hair. Like, this is how many times you should be washing your hair per week, you know, like, to get the best curls.

And that content was primarily consumed by women. And when she was looking at the response to her one no burp video, she noticed it was, like, mostly women who were saying they couldn’t burp.

ALEX: Hm.

ANNA: Which made her wonder if women were more likely to be no burpers. 

ALEX: Is there any good information on that?

ANNA: It’s just, like, kind of hard to tell because, like, there’s a bunch of different, like, outside factors that could be, like, muddying the data on this theory, right? Like, it could be that, like, more women are commenting because more women are actually no burpers, or maybe it’s just like, women are more likely to be served Brittany’s content because she is a beauty TikToker whose content is interesting to women, you know?

ALEX: Mm-hmm.

EMMANUEL: Right. Right, right, right, right.

ANNA: And so, like, the beauty idea, the beauty theory, I thought that, like, maybe seemed, like, a possible answer to why my sister could’ve gotten this video.  My sister does not have curly hair, but she loves makeup and skin care and, like, beauty. 

Emily: Maybe? It is a possibility that I searched how to see if your hair is really secretly curly on TikTok.

ANNA: We can look at your searches.

ANNA: I don’t know if you guys know this, but in the course of reporting this story, I found out that you can actually download all of the data that TikTok has on you. 

EMMANUEL: M-my question is, can you actually ever do anything with that data? I feel like I once downloaded a bunch of Google data and then couldn’t open it.

ANNA: Yeah. I just remember doing that with other sites, too, Emmanuel, and being like, none of this is that interesting. But, like, TikTok’s, it’s nuts, you guys — they have, like, a list of every video you have ever watched. Every video you’ve ever liked. Every search you’ve ever made.

EMMANUEL: Oh wow. [LAUGHS]

ANNA: Can I read you your searches, Emily? You’ve searched—

EMILY: Yeah. [PAUSES] No, no, no, no! 

ANNA: Okay, okay, okay. I’m not gonna, I’m not gonna… [laughs] Okay. Uh, I’m not gonna, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not—

EMILY: Use, use your best judgement.

ANNA: I’m not, I’m not gonna going to read people’s names. You’ve searched a lot of people’s names. Uh, so you searched “burn for you sing daphne”. 

EMILY: I like that one. 

ANNA: Which is the, the musical that—Bridgerton.

EMILY: They do the- 

ANNA: [SINGS] “I burn for you.” Yup.

EMILY: Yeah. [INAUDIBLE]

ANNA: Then you searched baking, nail talk, dip powder.

EMILY: Yeah.

ANNA: Michael, you poor sweet thing. [EMILY LAUGHS] Olive and June. 

ANNA: Olive and June is a nail polish company.

ANNA: Olive and June.

EMILY: Yeah.

ANNA: Folding lady. [LAUGHS] Olive and June. Bees. Bead. Olive and June. The A System. Husky piano man. [LAUGHS] Olive and June… 

ANNA: Emily obviously searches for a lot of Olive and June. Like, a lot of nail polish.

EMMANUEL: Clearly. Clearly.

ANNA: [LAUGHS] I was completely surprised. I did not realize that. And to me, when I saw that, it kinda supports the theory that TikTok could have sent this video to my sister not because it knew that she was a no burper, but because she likes beauty products and beauty videos, which is what Brittany made before she ever did any of that no burp stuff. 

EMMANUEL: Oh, so it was just sort of like, a coincidence where it’s like, TikTok’s like, “Okay, Brittany, this person is a big beauty person, Emily likes beauty stuff.” And it just so happened that the video it sent her, because Brittany, instead of making a makeup video, chose to make a no burp video, like —

ANNA: Mm-hmm.

EMMANUEL: ...was about no burp.

ANNA: Mm-hmm, yeah. That’s the theory. But there’s something kind of unsatisfying about that. Um, and it’s what’s unsatisfying about any theory about why my sister got this one video, actually. Because, like, TikTok is like this black box, and it gathers so much information about you, and what that means is it’s actually really hard to disentangle why it’s given you any one video in particular, you know?

ALEX: Yeah.

EMMANUEL: Yeah, totally.

ALEX: I feel like, unless you work at the company, and probably even if you do work at the company, you’re not going to be able to follow the breadcrumb trail of recommendation to figure out how somebody gets something.

EMMANUEL: It’s incredibly annoying.

ANNA: Yeah. I felt like I had just the tiniest little window into TikTok. Um, and I actually needed, like a really — I needed to see the entire sky, and instead I was just seeing a tiny little part of a constellation?

But my sister— she was still full of questions. 

EMMANUEL: Mm-hmm.

ANNA: And they were like, pretty big questions about, like, her life. And her body.

[MUSIC]

EMILY: I care about… why? The why.

ANNA: The eternal why.

EMILY: The eternal why. [LAUGHS] 

ANNA: Why has Emily never been able to burp?

EMILY: The, like, like, why, why am I this way? 

ANNA: how would that make you feel, if you, if you were able to know that?

EMILY: Empowered. People try and like, tell me it’s not real a lot.

ANNA: Like who?

EMILY: Like, like, people at work, and people at college, were like, “Have you tried swallowing air?” And I feel like being confident and, like, knowing… knowing that this is a thing that’s not, that I’m not just one day gonna burp—

ANNA: Mmm.

EMILY: … like, one day, it’s just not gonna come out, or like, maybe I’m like, psychologically choosing not to burp, like, knowing that there’s a solid and concrete reason, and knowing what that reason is—

ANNA: Mm-hmm.

EMILY: … I think would make me less flustered when people try to tell me it’s not real.

ANNA: When I was talking to my sister about this, I realized that the question about the algorithm? That was my question. Like, in my hunt— in my voracious hunt for trying to figure out why my sister got this video, I’d actually been a little bit selfish. Because, like, she didn’t really care about the algorithm. What my sister actually wanted was, she wanted somebody to take her seriously, like, her question seriously too: why was she this way, and what does being a no-burper actually mean. Like, for her body. 

I think that’s also what a lot of these no-burpers who were also online wanted. Like that’s part of the reason why Brittany’s video, Brittany’s TikTok, was so striking... Because it was one of the few places online where these people could like, hear about their condition, and share about their condition, and not be laughed at or brushed off or judged or kind of just like, left alone to doubt themselves and what was happening in their bodies.

And when I started to spend a lot of time in this little no-burp corner of TikTok, I kept noticing that all of these no burpers… They were talking about the same person who was doing what they wanted, who was taking them seriously. It was a doctor who kind of wrote the book on no-burp… well, maybe not a book, but at least the first peer reviewed studies on it. 

ANNA: So, like I said, I have so many questions for you.

DR. BASTIAN: Okay.

ANNA: This is Dr. Robert Bastian. He lives just outside Chicago, and he looks exactly like he sounds, down to the white hair and wire-framed glasses.

ANNA: Can you tell me what type of doctor you are?

DR. BASTIAN: Sure. I am a trained ear, nose, and throat physician.

ANNA: Okay.

DR. BASTIAN: But for a- all my career, basically, I’ve been just a throat physician. So, I’m subspecialized—

ANNA: Oh.

DR. BASTIAN: … in otolaryngology.

ANNA: Did you know that’s where you wanted to end up? Like, you were like, ‘I want to study the throat’.

DR. BASTIAN: Well, I did. I was, uh, originally an English and French major—

ANNA: Oh.

DR. BASTIAN: … and then I get very interested in music and singing. And so, actually, it was that love of singing and music and voice—

ANNA: Huh.

DR. BASTIAN: … that kind of led me into ENT.

ANNA: Like my sister, Dr. Bastian is a singer. He sings at church. He actually made his name as a doctor doing these extremely complicated and precise microsurgeries on people’s vocal cords that ended up saving singers’ careers. And that’s kind of what establishes him in the ENT world. And his practice, it just takes off from there. He actually starts a website called Laryngopedia…

[MUSIC]

... which sounds super scientific, but it’s actually just a very nerdy mashup of the type of doctor he is and the word “encyclopedia”. And he starts blogging about, like, all of these obscure issues that are coming into his practice, about the throat. Um, and so, it’s actually on that website that he gets a message in 2015.

DR. BASTIAN: One day, a young fellow wrote to me from Texas. And he described his symptoms. And he said he wanted to be a skydiver, and that when he would go up in an airplane, he had incredible discomfort, and that he couldn’t burp. And so, I just simply thought about it. I’d never heard of it, but I just simply did the thought process—

ANNA: Uh-huh.

DR. BASTIAN: … about what would explain all of these symptoms that he had. 

ANNA: Dr. Bastian started thinking about how burping actually works, which, somehow, in the course of reporting this story, I had not thought about until this moment. But basically, just to explain how it works, there’s a gate at the top of your throat, and it’s called the upper esophageal sphincter. And to him, what it sounded like was that, for some reason, this gate was letting things in, but not out. It wasn’t opening for the burps to escape.

And so, he has an idea. He thinks of something that might stop the throat from closing. So, he messages the man in Texas back.

DR. BASTIAN: And I said to him, “You need to get somebody to put Botox into your upper esophageal sphincter.”

EMMANUEL: Wait, Botox?

ANNA: Botox.

ALEX: Isn’t Botox, like, a—doesn’t—okay, maybe I don’t understand what Botox does. Does it relax muscles? Is that the deal?

EMMANUEL: I thought it does the opposite. I thought it actually tightens muscles.

ANNA: What it does is it basically just, like, paralyzes muscles. So, like, it was purely a hypothesis. But he thought that the Botox might temporarily relax that gate at the top of the throat… keep it open, and allow this no-burper to just, like, let air out. And then he thought maybe after the Botox wears off, that gate, it might learn to start opening and closing on its own.

DR. BASTIAN: So, he came to Chicago. We did the procedure. He was the first one. And it was dramatic. He called it— the word he used was “life-changing.”  It also resolved all of his symptoms—

ANNA: Hm.

DR. BASTIAN: … to a remarkable degree. And these five, six years later, he continues to burp. He does— I, I mean, it's crazy, because he had not burped his entire life. 

ANNA: Basically, Dr. Bastian cured this guy.

EMMANUEL: Wow.

ANNA: Yeah, it’s a big deal. 

And Dr. Bastian says that ever since then, people have been flocking to his office. When they show up, he says they’re in pretty serious pain. Like he asks them to rank it on a scale of 1-7, and he says that the majority of them rank their pain as a 6 or 7. 

ALEX: Ooh.

EMMANUEL: Oh wow. So, like, really, really, really going through it.

ANNA: And now, by this point… Dr. Bastian has performed this same surgery hundreds of times. Um—

ALEX: So, if he is doing this no-burp Botox injection, does no-burp actually have a scientific name [LAUGHS] besides no-burp?

EMMANUEL: [LAUGHS] This is true. What is the name?

ANNA: It, it— yeah, it does. It does. Um, I should have, like, looked up how to pronounce it, um, so I’m gonna butcher it. So, it’s— so, he, he’s the one who came up with the name for this. And it’s called retrograde cricopharyngular dysfunction.

ALEX: Huh.

ANNA: R-CPD for short.

ALEX: I gotta say, like, aesthetically, that’s a lot— that’s, like, a lot more pleasant than no-burp.

ANNA: I mean, I kinda like no-burp, but, uh, anyways. 

Dr. Bastian, he’s only been studying this since 2015. So, all the research on it is, like, relatively new. There’s still a lot about R-CPD that we don’t understand. Just to say: from his experience, though, he doesn’t think that women are more likely to get R-CPD. He says it seems pretty evenly spread across sex, race, and geography.

But Dr. Bastian, he told me that he actually had a theory that could answer my sister’s question— like, why can’t she burp? 

DR. BASTIAN: Here is my speculation, and of course, take this with a big grain of salt. My speculation is that there is a subset of human beings who, as infants—

ANNA: Uh-huh.

DR. BASTIAN: … feel that sensation of air coming up and needing to be burped, and they kind of do the wrong thing. Now, they, they clamp, or they tighten, or they do something that isn’t quite the right thing.

ANNA: What Dr. Bastian is saying is that when these babies feel the air that should be a burp coming up, they just don’t do the natural thing of letting that gate open in their throat and, like, letting that air out. That moment, it’s called a learned response. And it kind of sticks with these babies their whole lives. Their bodies, they just never learn how to burp.

And that made sense for my sister. She’s never burped. And so, this is the most likely explanation for why this happened to her. 

[MUSIC]

EMMANUEL: You guys have been on such a journey about this. Like, is— do you know, like, is Emily gonna get this treatment? 

ANNA: I think she’s considering it. Um. I think she still has a lot of questions, she’s also a little nervous… like, the only kind of major medical procedure she’s had in her life is getting stitches. 

But I was talking about this with her the other day, and she mentioned that she asked her voice teacher about it. Like, she wants to know how getting the Botox would affect her vocal training. And that, to me, feels like the first step in this becoming a reality. Like she’s kind of building this into her life, and imagining what her life could be.

If she does end up doing the procedure, I am definitely going to be there. Like, I want to be holding her hand when she has her first real burp. 

EMMANUEL: Love it. It’ll be such a proud moment for you and your family.

ANNA: We’ll drink champagne. That’s what we’ll do.

EMMANUEL: You can drink champagne!

ANNA: And then after she drinks it, she won’t stop burping, because that’s how the Botox works. [ALEX AND EMMANUEL LAUGHING] It just opens the floodgates. 

EMMANUEL: Love it. 

[MUSIC]

This episode of Reply All was produced by Lisa Wang, Phia Bennin, me, Anna Foley, and Hannah Chinn. It was edited by Damiano Marchetti, with additional editing help from Tim Howard and Emmanuel Dzotsi. As always, this episode would not have happened without the rest of the Reply All team: Jessica Yung, Alex Goldman and Noor Gill. 

The show is hosted by Emmanuel Dzotsi and Alex Goldman. This episode was mixed by Rick Kwan, with fact checking by Isabel Cristo. Music in this episode by Breakmaster Cylinder, Marianna Romano, Luke Williams, and Tim Howard. 

Special thanks to Julian McAuley and Shelly Banjo — Shelly has an awesome podcast called Foundering that’s all about TikTok, so definitely check that out. 

Also thanks to Sabba Keynejad, Jillian Ripmeester, Tom De Luca, Ian Jones, Lauren Cooley, Corinne Jones, Claire Cox, Matt Shilts, Gabriella Bulgarelli, and all of the listeners that talked to or wrote to me about their TikTok experiences.

Thank y’all so, so much for listening… I think that’s something that we’ve all been feeling right now, is just appreciation for all of you who’ve tuned in these last eight weeks, as we try a bunch of new stuff on our show. We’re gonna take a short break to work on our next batch of episodes. So until then, take care. We’ll see you in four weeks.