Every App Wants to Be a Shopping App

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Social-media platforms’ attempts to break into commerce have largely flopped. Will TikTok Shop fare any better?

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

“Silicon Valley Math”

A chamoy-pickle kit for $17.98; 352 sold so far. An ab roller wheel for $24.29; 8,592 sold. A one-piece professional V-shape-face double-chin-removal exerciser for 89 cents; 81 sold. Such is a sampling of the items featured on my TikTok Shop tab on Wednesday morning.

Earlier this week, TikTok Shop, a feature that allows audiences to purchase a baffling array of items through a stand-alone Shop tab and from videos on their feed, rolled out to TikTok users in the United States. Now many of the app’s livestreams are “QVC-like places where sellers are nonstop pitching products to live audiences,” as my colleague Caroline Mimbs Nyce recently wrote. TikTok’s latest move is an attempt to shift the app’s identity—and a sign of the company’s confidence in the loyalty of its users. Yes, we can riddle feeds with often-ludicrous product promotions, the Shop feature seems to be saying, and people will still keep coming back for more.

TikTok is the latest in a series of prominent platforms that have tried to pivot to e-commerce. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and even Google have tried to launch shopping functions, with varying—though generally low—degrees of success. “Every advertising company tries its hand at commerce, because they think that there’s some huge prize to be had if you can actually own the transaction and know what people are purchasing,” Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester, told me. But though the potential gains are tantalizing, it’s hard to pull off: Instagram booted its shopping feature from the navigation bar and shut down its live-shopping feature earlier this year. Facebook similarly shut down its livestream-shopping function last year. Live-shopping services on YouTube have also struggled to gain traction.

Platforms moving to e-commerce need to build product pages and figure out details such as order fulfillment, secure checkout processes, customer service, and other logistics. That’s a lot for tech companies whose primary expertise lies in other areas. “It’s never worked for anyone else,” Kodali said. “Why would it work for [TikTok]?” (A spokesperson for TikTok told me that there are upwards of 200,000 sellers on TikTok Shop, and more than 100,000 registered creators, but declined to share more information beyond what’s posted on the company’s press site.)

American customers, by and large, don’t seem all that eager to shop on social-media apps instead of on trusted e-commerce websites. In China, where TikTok’s parent company is based, shopping via livestream is a huge trend—an estimated $500 billion in goods were reportedly sold on streams last year. But just because shopping on social media is big in China doesn’t mean it will translate to American audiences; Kodali noted that Chinese e-commerce trends do not have a track record of blowing up in the United States. And TikTok’s own norms may make commercial activity a hard sell. Caroline told me today that, although the app’s culture of authenticity may help some users sell things, “you could see shopping being a bit of an odd fit: This app was supposed to be where I watched relatable videos from everyday people, and now they’re trying to make money off of me?”

Still, Caroline told me, “people spend a tremendous amount of time on TikTok, and I don’t see them quitting en masse over TikTok Shop. I think it’s more of a question of how much users will tolerate, and how successful it’ll be in the long run.” In-app shopping, she added, is a “white whale” for social platforms.

Commerce and social media have long been intertwined: Much of social-media influencers’ role boils down to recommending products. But audiences follow these influencers because they trust them and because these people have a track record of offering useful or interesting information. On TikTok Shop, meanwhile, almost anyone can start selling things. I currently have five followers, and perhaps one dayI too could apply to set up an account to start hawking one-piece professional V-shape-face double-chin-removal exercisers. (I probably wouldn’t do that.) And some reporters have already identified safety and integrity concerns with the feature.

If other apps have failed to grow e-commerce businesses and there doesn’t seem to be a strong consumer appetite for these services in the U.S., why is TikTok trying to get into the retail game? Part of it might be a simple grasp at big numbers, combined with a healthy dose of the hubris that powers the tech world. American retail is a multitrillion-dollar industry: If tech executives are engaging in what Kodali called “Silicon Valley math”—calculating the total size of a market and estimating the percentage of it they can capture—they may extrapolate big revenues. And to large tech companies, it may seem relatively easy and worthwhile to create a checkout module and order pages if it means getting even a small slice of the retail pie. Social-media companies have a long history of foisting new products that they hope will prove good for their business on users who did not ask for them—consider the metaverse.

Tech companies have been throwing spaghetti at the proverbial wall for years, seeking out new revenue streams where they can. TikTok Shop may be another such investment: a grasp at revenue just in case it works. Social-media apps are always mimicking features from other apps. Instagram is trying to be like Twitter and Snapchat; LinkedIn is emulating TikTok; Facebook is trying to be like everyone. And TikTok seems to be the latest app trying to become Amazon.


Today’s News

  1. Tropical-storm warnings are in place for millions of people in New England and Canada as Hurricane Lee approaches.
  2. In remarks from the White House, President Joe Biden expressed respect for the United Auto Workers strike and emphasized that record profits for auto companies have not been “shared fairly” with workers.
  3. Corpses are decaying under rubble in the Libyan city of Derna, where at least 10,000 people are believed to be missing due to devastating floods.


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Evening Read

illustration of two cut-outs of a couple
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Don’t Let Love Take Over Your Life

By Faith Hill

If you have a romantic partner, maybe you’ve noticed that you two spend an awful lot of time together—and that you haven’t seen other people quite as much as you’d like. Or if you’re single (and many of your friends aren’t), you might have gotten the eerie feeling that I sometimes do: that you’re in a deserted town, as if you woke one morning to find the houses all empty, the stores boarded up. Where’d everyone go?

Either way, that feeling might not just be in your head. Kaisa Kuurne, a sociologist at the University of Helsinki, told me she was “a little bit shocked” when she started mapping Finnish adults’ relationships for a 2012 study, investigating whom subjects felt close to and how they interacted day to day. Subjects who lived with a romantic partner seemed to have receded into their coupledom.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

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Illustration by Katie Martin

Read. Why are women freezing their eggs? Many are struggling to find a male co-parent, a new book by Marcia C. Inhorn concludes.

Listen. An audio collection of some of last month’s most popular Atlantic articles, presented by Hark.

Play our daily crossword.


In another fascinating addition to the annals of Sam Bankman-Fried, my friend and former colleague David Yaffe-Bellany reports in The New York Times that while on house arrest, the FTX founder crafted a set of byzantine documents explaining himself, which he gave to the crypto influencer Tiffany Fong for reasons unclear. Bankman-Fried’s apologia took the form of a 15,000-word, 70-page unpublished Twitter thread, replete with links to Alicia Keys and Rihanna music videos as well as jabs at former colleagues; another file featured a screenshot from the Christopher Nolan movie Inception. A favorite detail of mine from the article: Apparently, Bankman-Fried told Fong that his parents were installing a pickleball court for him while he was on house arrest.

— Lora

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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