This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
My name is Ade Onibada, and I’m a social news reporter for BuzzFeed from London. You may have previously read my newsletter hot takes like when I challenged Khloé Kardashian on that viral photo we weren’t allowed to talk about, or more recently, Black TikTok creators taking a stand against the platform in a boycott.
Whether it was entertainment, home renovations, beauty tutorials, or restaurant reviews, 2021 was the year that turned TikTok skeptics into believers, as evidenced by the platform reaching 1 billion global users monthly back in September.
You only need to scan the hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt, which presently has 7.4 billion views, to see how the app has also influenced our consumer habits (it’s the sole reason I picked up the infamous Kat Von D Good Apple foundation balm).
Over on #FoodTok, the cooking community on the platform responsible for introducing national treasures like Tabitha Brown to the world, simple recipes gripped audiences and now TikTok is cashing in.
Rather than having to cook a viral food trend themselves, customers will be able to order for delivery from a new venture called TikTok Kitchens, announced this week in Insider. In partnership with Virtual Dining Concepts, the company plans to launch 300 ghost kitchens — the name used for restaurants that exist purely for delivery apps and don’t have storefronts — to bring fans a taste of the dishes creators on the platform popularized.
Items including the infamous baked feta pasta, pasta chips, and the smash burger will be available in the first menu, launching in March, and will change quarterly.
Like many on TikTok, I saw Amy Wilichowski make pesto eggs — add pesto to a pan, fry eggs in delicious basil-oil-nut paste — so naturally, I too made pesto eggs.
The 25-year-old from Boston makes no claims of being the creator of the recipe, but she did say that she was contacted by TikTok and offered $5,000 for her pesto eggs to be included in the new initiative.
“I essentially signed a contract saying I was OK with them using my idea as long as I got credited for it,” Wilichowski told Please Like Me. “How it was worded was that a version of my pesto eggs will be included in TikTok Kitchens.”
As the company attempts to further cash in on its online dominance with a real-world experience, you have to wonder: Who is going to want to order pesto eggs via a food delivery service about nine months after they were first introduced to the concept?
Wilichowski certainly doesn’t know, noting: “That’s not something I would personally want to order on a food delivery app — the yolk is probably cold, it might harden. A sunny-side egg isn’t something you order on Uber Eats.”
But she’s expecting TikTok Kitchens to make delivery-friendly pesto eggs, and she thinks her fellow foodies are due to win big, with both money and attention.
“I think it’s an amazing idea because I feel like you have all these people who love making food and creating food that are going to get to be in the spotlight with this,” Wilichowski said.
The registered dietician and cooking enthusiast dreams of one day owning her own restaurant, and if TikTok is true to its promise, greater things could be on the horizon for creators like her.
The company is reported to be putting part of its share of the profits from this venture into supporting creators.
In a strange development, when I reached out to TikTok for clarity on which other food content creators had been tapped, a spokesperson called the campaign announcement “premature” and said that things were “still very much in the planning stages.”
How the company will unravel the question of who these recipes belong to and if a trending recipe can exist outside of the trending moment is yet to be determined, but I suspect those are the details you figure out when you’re “still very much in the planning stage.”
While TikTok is trying to cook us dinner, British journalist Symeon Brown is turning up the heat on the influencer economy in his upcoming book Get Rich or Lie Trying, which I was able to get an advanced copy of since I’m lucky enough to know him IRL.
Brown has previously reported on Instagram’s self-styled finance bros, dubbed the “wolves of Instagram,” who routinely promote risky financial products, and use their social media to show off a lavish lifestyle and recruit their unassuming victims.
There’s never been a shortage of criticisms of influencers, but a quick search for literature on the broader industry is more likely to turn up suggestions of how you too can become an influencer and transform your basic social media profile into a money-making vehicle while unlocking the girlboss that lies dormant in you.
Given that 86% of young Americans reportedly want to become social media influencers, Brown asks the question: “Do they know what they’re letting themselves in for?”
Beyond the success stories and household names that have dominated digital culture and carry clout capital, there is a long line of influencers-in-waiting constantly repackaging themselves against a backdrop of financial insecurity and rabid competition.
LA YouTube pranksters, OnlyFans creators, dropshippers, the list goes on, and Brown introduces it all while interrogating the dark side of the attention economy.
“When the lockdown happened, everyone on my feed was trying to make a buck online,” Brown told me. “My timeline was filled with pyramid schemes, dodgy crypto coins, or friends desperately trying to grow their social media followings to join the growing ranks of digital hustlers.”
Money wasn’t the only factor though. “The pivot to influencer is as much about the new capital of internet popularity as it is about pervasive economic precarity,” Brown said. “The book was really trying to tell the story of an ambitious generation who feel shortchanged, disillusioned, and instead of beating the system, believe they have to join it by any means — get rich or lie trying.”
Till I can figure out what viral meal I can make to earn a quick $5,000, I’ll meditate this festive season on Brown’s words and wonder how influencers will handle the third year of a global pandemic.