This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
If we know anything about the future of social media, it’s that there’s still a lot of money to be made, and that companies like Instagram and TikTok will continue to compete for our dollars.
During the pandemic, Instagram launched its big shopping tab. It was smart, as we were all stuck inside with few other things to soothe our anxieties besides retail therapy, but also sad and annoying. I tried to stave off temptation, but I ended up buying a lot of stuff that social media spoon-fed to me.
Now, TikTok may be trying to keep up. A digital marketer named Karine Hsu shared screenshots on Twitter this week that appear to show TikTok is beta-testing “Storefront” pages to “become a fully integrated shoppable ecommerce experience.”
When I asked TikTok about this, the company didn’t confirm or deny it’s implementing these new shopping features, but did give me some hints for what is in its future.
“We are testing new features that will make it easier for users to discover businesses and their products through merchants' TikTok account profiles and videos. We will provide updates as we continue to explore these important avenues for our community of users, creators, and brands,” it said.
If the company is indeed moving in this direction, it makes perfect sense. As Instagram Reels comes for TikTok’s bread and butter, TikTok seems to be coming for Instagram’s savviest community: fashion and consumerism. I spend more money on Instagram, even though I spend more time on TikTok. Perhaps it’s because I’m a millennial and Instagram knows my purchasing habits better than TikTok does (which is dark).
This could change very quickly if TikTok is serious about converting all the time we’re spending on its For You Page to new revenue channels. Take the recent #BamaRush sensation on its app. However fun and inconsequential it seems, it’s already made a huge impact on fast-fashion brands. The entire trend is, on its surface, women flaunting and calling out where they bought their cute clothes. If TikTok really wanted to exploit this, it would include shoppable links on viral posts, or mass-target users who are stuck in a #BamaTok hole with ads for Shein or Revolve. I hope they don’t, BTW. That’s a kind of bleak reality I hope to never see on social media, but it is entirely possible.
There is just so much money that can be made. YouTube veteran Hank Green, who’s now become a popular personality on TikTok, shared a video recently about how sales of his debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing increased by over 3,200% on Amazon because of one viral TikTok gloating about it. It makes perfect sense, but it is still very shocking to see tangible numbers.
The magic of organic social media influence is also a Catch-22 for social media marketing. People are compelled to spend more freely if they feel like they’re being recommended a brand or product with authenticity. That’s why influencers tend to prefer to shill products they naturally like and use. However, as soon as Instagram or TikTok start trying to commercialize that kind of perceived realness — whether it’s Bama sorority members putting on a fun fashion show or one person hyping up their favorite book — it gets ethically iffy, and it turns users off. It would be in these companies’ best interest to draw a line somewhere between trying to make a lot of money, and trying to preserve the charm of the app that drew in so many users in the first place.
“Will everything be shopping?” is an existential question I think about a lot when it comes to social media, and I feel unsettled about it. On one hand, I fucking love to shop. Instagram makes shopping easier; it’s instantly gratifying, and it helped me and others cope during a year when there was not much else to do. On the other, more esoteric or philosophical hand, I take a lot of issue with big tech companies intentionally trying to keep our attention hostage all while selling us a ton of unvetted stuff. And, simply put, shopping is not always the most holistic way to deal with life’s tough shit.
The industry moving toward faster lines of e-commerce feels natural for how unnaturally automaton-like the shopping experience will become. Last week, I “liked” a friend’s sweet photo she shared of her and her mom on Instagram, and then clicked on a sponsored post about one of my favorite shoe brands having a major sale. Within five literal minutes of what I thought was a routine check-in on what my friends and loved ones were up to on social media, I bought a pair of shoes.
Everything, suspended in this one moment, felt like shopping. At least in the physical world, I’d have to leave my home and put on a pair of shoes I already owned to be tempted to spend more unwittingly.
Until next time,