TikTok considers ditching its ‘Friends’ tab for a new ‘Explore’ experience focused on discovery

Unlike Facebook, TikTok grew in popularity by connecting users with their interests, not their real-life friends and family. In fact, many people today deny 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 its useful Discover section with a dedicated Friends tab wasn’t all that well-received. Now, it seems TikTok is reconsidering that change. The company confirmed it’s running a test that swaps out its Friends tab — which is also where TikTok’s BeReal clone is found — with a new experience that’s more akin to Instagram’s Explore page.

The change, if rolled out more broadly, could signal the company’s acceptance of the role TikTok plays in the social app ecosystem — one that’s about content discovery, not keeping up with real-world friendships.

TikTok alluded to this mission when it recently launched its new STEM-focused feed in the app, noting that “discovery is essential to the TikTok experience,” and that it’s always looking to help the community uncover “new and relevant content.” The company also earlier this year began an experiment that introduced a major change to the app’s homepage where it expanded beyond its two main feeds, For You and Following, to also include dedicated feeds focused on areas like sports, fashion, gaming and food.

Both cases, however, signal the discovery challenges TikTok is now trying to overcome because of the Discover tab’s removal. For people who didn’t open TikTok daily, the Discover tab had been a means of catching up with what people were talking about and creating content around over the past several days. In the tab, users could watch trending videos, organized by hashtag, find new creators to follow and view some of the most viral videos. It also offered space for TikTok to promote various themes it wanted to touch on that week or month through larger, eye-catching banners at the top of the page.

With the tab’s disappearance, it’s become much harder to keep up with the latest on TikTok, which leads to increased viewership of creator series where they would summarize TikTok trends in weekly videos. While TikTok’s new Explore tab may not offer the same overview that Discover once did, it does seem to be a new way for the app to suggest content to end users outside of its usual feeds.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via Watchful.ai

The feature, which was uncovered by the product intelligence firm Watchful.ai, introduces a page where users can scroll and explore videos in a grid form. It’s unclear for the time being how Explore’s recommendations will work or how directly they’ll be tied to users’ viewing behavior, but ultimately, it could serve as another way to surface new content — and potentially, become a platform for ads, like Instagram Explore.

TikTok confirmed the test of the Explore Feed experience was in early testing in a few regions globally with select users, but was not yet widely available. Currently, the TikTok Now/Friends tab is still the default experience for all users.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via Watchful.ai

In its current form, TikTok Explore is less visually appealing than Instagram Explore. The latter presents a colorful, wall-to-wall grid of both photos and videos the app believes the user will like, based on their prior behavior. It doesn’t 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 the screen. While Instagram can feature a dozen or so photos and videos on Explore, TikTok Explore only manages to fit four.

Of course, as an early-stage test, this may not be the final experience — and the feature itself may never reach the point of rolling out to the public at all. That will depend on how users choose to engage with Explore and if it generates the metrics TikTok wants to see.

It does, however, signal 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 mean a wind-down for TikTok Now, as it would no longer have prime home screen real estate in the dedicated Friends tab. Launched last fall amid numerous other BeReal clones, TikTok Now was a shameless attempt to turn BeReal’s once-a-day photos into just another feature for a larger social app. But demand for BeReal has been trending down, with a decline in downloads from 15.2 million in October 2022 to 4.2 million this February, according to data from Apptopia recently cited by Digiday. That could prompt TikTok to find a better use case for this prominent tab on its app — and one that would provide a new surface for discovery and, eventually perhaps, advertising.