How Gen Z is using TikTok to search for information and what it means for information literacy

Photo of Elizabeth Brookbank
Elizabeth Brookbank

In case anyone reading lives a blissfully social-media-free life, TikTok is a social media app made up of short videos created by its users. It started out as mainly videos of things like dances, stunts, and pranks, but now has videos on pretty much everything under the sun. Like other social media, the content a person sees on TikTok is customized into a personal feed using an algorithm that takes into account things like videos they have watched, liked, commented on; videos that their friends on TikTok have interacted with; videos that are popular; videos that use the same background music/sound as other videos they have liked, etc. This is why my own feed, for instance, is almost entirely made up of videos of baking and cute animals. TikTok also began, like most social media, as a platform popular with mainly young people, even though one can now find users of all ages. The way that young people are using it, however, is the topic of much recent discussion and of this blog post. Specifically, how they are using it to search for information. 

This topic surfaced in the media this past summer, after a tech industry conference in July where it was reported that Google was worried that TikTok is taking search business away from them. According to TechCrunch, Google Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan said, “almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search…They go to TikTok or Instagram.” TechCrunch went on to note that this awareness of the competition videos represent for search business has already begun to change how Google organizes and presents some results. This is something you may have noticed if you use Google searches in your library information literacy instruction sessions. Google is now indexing Instagram and TikTok videos so that when one searches for a keyword followed by the word “TikTok,” Google will return rows of results of TikTok videos before any standard text results. My anecdotal experience of using Google in the classroom is that even when I don’t add “TikTok” to my searches, Google is serving up more video results – from YouTube mainly (which makes sense since it is owned by the same company that owns Google) – than ever before.

This elder millennial had never even considered using TikTok for anything other than watching videos of cats doing silly things, so I tried out the search feature as I was writing this blog post. There is not much different about the process of searching from searching in any other social media app. You tap a magnifying glass icon in the app, you type your search terms and TikTok gives you some auto-complete options that seemed pretty accurate, for my searches at least. Then, once you hit “search” you are shown a screen with thumbnails of video results, the first of which begins to automatically play. The app has geo-tagging that could be useful if I was searching for recommendations of business near me, but I haven’t allowed the app to use my location, so when I searched for things “near me” the results were not accurate. I also noticed that once I searched for something, my main feed immediately began showing me more videos related to that search.

Not long after the story about young people using TikTok instead of Google to search made the rounds in tech-focused media, The New York Times did an article about the phenomenon citing the same quote by Raghavan that seems to have started it all. The NY Times piece also included the experiences of four young people, including some direct quotes, about how they use TikTok to search. The interviewed young people ranged from 15 years old to 25 years old, all solidly Gen Z, though there is no information in the article about how these four were chosen for an interview. Some of the examples given by these young people for how they use TikTok to search included looking for information about asking for a recommendation letter from a teacher, searching for restaurants to visit, and “recipes to cook, films to watch and nearby happy hours to try.” 

More interesting from an information literacy perspective than what they search for using TikTok, however, is what they said about why they search using TikTok. The young woman who used it to look up restaurants in LA said she did so because she felt the TikTok videos would be a more authentic review, saying, “On TikTok, you see how the person actually felt about where they ate. A long-winded written review of a restaurant can’t capture its ambience, food and drinks like a quick video clip can.” The Times article went on to say that “young people are using TikTok not only to look for products and businesses, but also to ask questions about how to do things and find explanations for what things mean. With videos often less than 60 seconds long, TikTok returns what feels like more relevant answers, many said.” What these quotes say to me is that young people are intuitively thinking about authority when they choose TikTok to search. They’re looking for videos by people who can demonstrate they know what they’re talking about. They’re looking for authenticity, authority, and expertise–all important considerations in source evaluation.

Another particularly interesting aspect of this use of TikTok for those of us interested in information literacy is the way that young people think about the algorithm. One person the NY Times interviewed said she had begun using the app as a search engine because it was more convenient than Google and Instagram. “They know what I want to see,” she said. “It’s less work for me to actually go out of my way to search.” The way TikTok knows what we want to see is, of course, its algorithm, which is tracking all our views, interactions, and those of our friends and followers to curate our feed. When I talked to students at the university where I’m a librarian about how/if they use TikTok for search, they were definitely aware of TikTok’s algorithm, the way it works, and how it impacts what they see. Every single one of them mentioned the fact that they know TikTok is only showing them what they want to see/what they have interacted with before – for some this was a good thing, and for some it was bad, but the high level of awareness of it was striking. Here are some quotes from the students I talked to:

“It’s a lot easier to see when something is paid for or sponsored, and to avoid it if you don’t want that, than when searching on Google.”

“Using TikTok to search seems pointless because you know that it’s only going to show you things that you already like or know because of the algorithm…there are good things that might get censored and depending on what you usually watch, more videos will come up for you that are what you already watch and like, so it’s not giving you all the results.”

“It goes by what you’re interested in and have searched for so once you search for something you get lots more videos for it, which is a little creepy.”

“My biggest complaint with the search is that it doesn’t allow you to sort by date, and the algorithm shows things it thinks you’ll like based on past likes and things that are popular.”

“I like searching for products on TikTok because you get to actually see the products in use and hear about them, as opposed to having to read about them.”

“I don’t personally use it to search, but I can see people searching for how to do things, or other searches that you’d actually need to watch a video for.”

As is clear from reading these quotes, quite a few of the students I talked to actually don’t use TikTok for search – for some really good and thoughtful reasons. This gives an important alternative perspective on this supposed wide-spread phenomenon that none of the popular media articles I read acknowledged. Remember, what Google actually said was that up to 40% of Gen Z are using TikTok this way, which means the majority still aren’t.

The only other qualitative data I could find on this – other than my own informal interviews and the anecdotes/interviews shared in the NY Times article–is a focus group that a social media strategist, Adrienne Sheares, who I follow on Twitter, did with a few GenZers. She posted a video with longer takeaways and some content from the focus group that is worth watching, but these were her three main takeaways:

  • “TikTok shows them relevant content FASTER than Google. The algorithm knows them WELL, and they love that. No two feeds are alike. 
  • They don’t want to read to find information. They will if they HAVE to (more details in the video). But if they can get a quick video with the answer – that’s what they prefer.
  • The group didn’t really care about misinformation. They know it exists and will avoid content on TikTok that can easily be false (like health or news).”

The last one is, I think, the most interesting from an information literacy perspective. It is in line with what I learned from the WOU students I talked to, which is that they are aware of the problems inherent in this technology. The small group of young people in this focus group don’t let those problems stop them from using the tool in the way they want, however, because they are confident that they can spot it and navigate around it. But can they actually do this well? This is the biggest question and most urgent concern for information literacy professionals. 

Because, as you might expect if you are one of said information literacy professionals, TikTok is chock-full of mis- and disinformation, and not just on the topics the young people in that focus group identified – health and news. There is a small but growing body of academic research on the content of TikTok videos that deal with various niche academic areas of expertise, and many of these studies demonstrate that mis- and disinformation about topics as varied as eating disorders, fibroblast pens, and dry eyes are a serious problem on the platform. An industry watchdog also recently released a report on misinformation on TikTok, which is one of the most comprehensive studies I found on the topic. It found that almost 20% of the videos presented as search results contained misinformation.1  

The takeaway from all this, from my perspective at least, is that librarians and other information literacy professionals who teach these skills should start including TikTok in our information literacy lessons and classroom discussions. Some percentage of young people are already using the tool for searching, and even those who aren’t are likely consuming content on the platform. TikTok videos would make great examples for teaching the lesson of how to critically evaluate the authority and credibility of a source, and will likely feel more authentic and relevant to your students than a text-heavy website or blog post. 

Have you already started integrating TikTok into your information literacy instruction? If so, please share your experiences in the comments.

Elizabeth Brookbank – Associate Professor / Instruction Librarian, Western Oregon University, ILG North American Rep

1 I do want to give the caveat that the organization responsible for this report, NewsGuard, has been criticized for the views of some folks on its board and because it produces a browser extension to “check” credibility, when, as most information literacy professionals agree, information literacy is better taught from a critical thinking approach than a checklist approach.

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