When neuroscientist Ben Rein uploaded his first video to TikTok, little did he realize it would open up a whole new area of research to him and transform his career. But now Rein has over 700,000 followers on TikTok, 119,000 on Instagram and his videos have had millions of views.
Although Rein, a former postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University who has recently become Chief Science Officer of the Texas-based Mind Science Foundation, has posted hugely popular videos about neuroscience on TikTok, what made some of his videos go viral (his most popular has 6.4 million views) and others only attract a few thousand views had been a mystery.
But in a study published in IBRO’s flagship journal Neuroscience, Rein unlocks the secrets of TikTok to find out how the platform’s all-important recommendation algorithm influences how often a video is viewed and what types of science content tend to be watched the most. “People would ask me, how does the TikTok algorithm work and what are your best tips and secrets, and I always wanted to have really good answers to those questions,” says Rein. Some of the answers came as a bit of a surprise.
Dr. Ben Rein
While on many social media platforms, the number of followers you have has a big influence on the number of people who see posts, that’s not the case on TikTok – its algorithm has a big influence. “There’s this algorithmic component to post performance, where you can post something and if the algorithm thinks a lot of people will like it, a lot of people will see it, says Rein. “You can have 200 followers on TikTok but have a video that receives a million or two million views.”
Dr. Rein in one of his TikTok videos
To try to understand the algorithm, Rein collected data on the engagement with a random sample of 150 TikTok videos he posted between April 2020 and November 2022, on topics as diverse as whether sugar is more addictive than cocaine, what p-values are, and a new theory on dreaming.
He ran linear regressions to find out which measures of engagement, such as shares and likes, are correlated with the number of views a video gets. Rein anticipated the percent of likes a video received (the number of likes divided by the number of viewers of a video) would have a large influence on the number of views, but it only accounted for 14% of a video’s performance in terms of the number of views. “That was the strongest predictor I saw, which showed me that this is a really complicated and confusing algorithm.”
However, the number of likes, along with the percent of viewers of a TikTok video who shared it, had the strongest influence on the number of views a video received, albeit a modest one. The longer viewers spent watching a video also led to it being viewed more as it was made more visible by the algorithm.
When Rein looked at the subject matter of videos he posted that generated most engagement from TikTok users, measured by likes, shares and comments, one type stood out – those in which he summarized a research paper. Rein suggests why this is. “The general public is often interested in science and they intrinsically understand that peer-reviewed scientific papers are of high quality. But this information is often behind paywalls, and it’s often filled with jargon. I’m essentially providing a service on TikTok of taking those papers and making them accessible.” Videos in which Rein answered a hypothetical question were also popular. “Like what if we took my brain and put it onto another person’s body, would I still be me? Things like that. And also theories, like ‘here’s a new theory we have about dreaming’.”
Rein is planning the next steps of his social media research. “The study is limited by the fact it is only my data from my TikTok channel. The main question is, is any of this true for other accounts of TikTok?” A TikTok video about his Neuroscience paper prompted other creators to get in touch with offers to share their engagement data. Rein is also planning to see whether the same insights hold true on other social media platforms.
The most impactful aspect of the research in the Neuroscience paper from Rein’s perspective was a survey of his followers on Instagram, where he also posts videos. Of those who followed his account, 91% reported feeling more connected with science and 84% reported feeling more trusting of science.
“If you went to a conference and sat down with a scientist and explained that we’ve identified an intervention that can make 84% of people feel more trustful of science and it takes 60 seconds, I think the scientist would say this is impossible. And if you told them that it involved posting videos on TikTok and Instagram, I think they would be shocked.”
This was Rein’s first time publishing in Neuroscience and he found it to be a positive experience. “There was clear communication all the way along,” says Rein. “As the sole author of the paper, the reviewers’ comments were welcome. It was nice to get more eyes on the paper to identify any mistakes I had overlooked that co-authors might have picked up on.” Neuroscience not charging publishing fees was also welcome. “This was a side project that I was enthusiastic about publishing but wasn’t directly related to the main area of my research. I therefore had no research funds directly related to support publishing fees. Neuroscience gave me the opportunity to publish without costs.”
This article was written by Dr. Andy Ridgway.
Established in 1976, Neuroscience is the flagship journal of IBRO. The journal features papers describing the results of original research on any aspect of the scientific study of the nervous system. Papers of any length are considered for publication provided that they report significant, new, and carefully confirmed findings with full experimental details. Together with IBRO Neuroscience Reports, IBRO’s open access journal, Neuroscience plays a crucial role in supporting the organization’s global neuroscience activities, as proceeds from both journals support more than 90% of IBRO’s initiatives.