Unlike Facebook, TikTok grew in popularity by connecting users to their interests, not their real-life friends and family. In fact, many people today reject the app’s request to upload their contacts because TikTok is a place where they don’t want to interact with people they know. That’s why the company’s decision last year to replace the handy Discover section with a dedicated Friends tab wasn’t well received. Now it seems that TikTok is rethinking that change. The company confirmed that it is testing to replace the Friends tab — which is also home to TikTok’s BeReal clone — with a new experience more similar to Instagram’s Explore page.
The change, if rolled out more widely, could mean the company accepting the role TikTok plays in the social app ecosystem — one that’s about content discovery, not keeping track of true friendships.
TikTok alluded to this mission when it recently launched its new STEM-focused feed on the app, noting that “discovery is essential to the TikTok experience,” and that it’s always looking to help the community find “new and relevant content”. The company also began an experiment earlier this year that made a major change to the app’s homepage, moving beyond the two main feeds, For You and Following, to also include special feeds focused on areas such as sports, fashion, gaming and food.
However, both cases indicate the discovery challenges that TikTok is now trying to overcome due to the removal of the Discover tab. For people who didn’t open TikTok on a daily basis, the Discover tab would have been a way to catch up on what people were talking about and create content around the past few days. The tab allowed users to view trending videos organized by hashtag, find new creators to follow, and view some of the most viral videos. It also provided space for TikTok to promote different themes they wanted to cover that week or month via larger, eye-catching banners at the top of the page.
With the disappearance of the tab, it has become much more difficult to keep up with the latest news about TikTok, leading to more viewers of creator series where they would summarize TikTok trends in weekly videos. While TikTok’s new Explore tab might not offer the same overview as Explore once did, it seems like a new way for the app to suggest content to end users outside of the usual feeds.
The feature, which was discovered by product information company Watchful.ai, introduces a page where users can scroll and explore videos in a grid form. It’s unclear for now how Explore’s recommendations will work or how directly they’ll be linked to users’ viewing habits, but eventually it could serve as another way to surface new content – and possibly become a platform for advertising , such as Instagram Discover.
TikTok confirmed that the Explore Feed experience was in early testing in a few regions worldwide with select users, but not yet generally available. Currently, the TikTok Now/Friends tab is still the default experience for all users.
In its current form, TikTok Explore is visually less appealing than Instagram Explore. The latter presents a colorful, wall-to-wall grid of both photos and videos that the app thinks the user will like, based on their previous behavior. It does not include white space and text, as TikTok Explore’s test does. TikTok’s design also limits the amount of content that can be shown on screen. While Instagram on Explore can hold a dozen photos and videos, TikTok Explore only fits four.
Of course, as an early stage test, this may not be the last experience – and the feature itself may never reach the point of rolling out to the public at all. That depends on how users choose to interact with Explore and whether it generates the stats TikTok wants to see.
However, it does indicate that TikTok is at least thinking about taking a step back from trying to be a more traditional social network that prioritizes connecting people with others they know.
It could also be a letdown for TikTok Now, as it would no longer have prime real estate on the home screen in the dedicated Friends tab. Launched last fall amidst a host of other BeReal clones, TikTok Now was a blatant attempt to turn BeReal’s everyday photos into just another feature for a larger social app. But demand for BeReal is on a declining trend, with downloads dropping from 15.2 million in October 2022 to 4.2 million in February, according to Apptopia data recently cited by Digiday. That might prompt TikTok to find a better use case for this prominent tab in its app — and one that would provide a new surface for discovery, and ultimately, perhaps, advertising.