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The Junk Is Winning – The Atlantic

TikTok would like to sell me a brush. Or, more specifically, an UNbrush. The $18 implement, made by the hair-tool brand FHI Heat, looks like a regular paddle brush, but with its rear panel removed so that air can flow through its perforated sheet of plastic bristles. Its promise, according to the dozens of video reviews that TikTok has pushed into my feed in the past week, is simple: The UNbrush cuts through tangles like a hot knife through butter, even if your hair is highly textured or coated in salt water after a day at the beach. At times, every third or fourth video in my feed has shown the brush doing exactly that, accompanied by a coupon code—never the same one, never for the same amount—and a link to buy.

The UNbrush is just one of many assorted products—mascaras, office chairs, battery-powered kitchen scrubbers—that have recently gone viral on TikTok Shop, which officially launched in the United States last month. TikTok’s endless stream of unpredictable, algorithmically selected clips has long been a powerful—if erratic—engine for shopping. Many people’s feeds were already full of informal, chatty reviews and product demonstrations that, at their best, feel like you’re getting a genuine tip from a friend. These videos have sold scores of seemingly random consumer goods, so TikTok Shop is the company’s bid to profit from those sales directly instead of sending those dollars elsewhere.

Thousands of sellers have rushed to list their wares on the platform, but TikTok Shop’s rollout hasn’t been universally beloved by the app’s U.S. users. To encourage creators to promote the shop’s products, people with at least 5,000 followers can join an affiliate-marketing program that pays them a commission on any sales they refer with their shopping links—a long-standing feature of more traditional online retailers, made potentially more powerful because of TikTok’s newly closed ecosystem of recommendations and sales. As my colleague Caroline Mimbs Nyce wrote during the feature’s test phase this past summer, some users have balked at how much TikTok Shop encourages their fellow TikTokers not just to share recommendations but also to more pointedly hawk products, pushing people’s feeds even further toward a low-rent, Gen Z version of QVC.

More than a month into the feature’s full rollout, those concerns seem prescient. The app is clogged with commission-generating sales pitches, listings for potentially counterfeit versions of popular products, and the kind of dirt-cheap plastic doodads that you’ll also see on bargain-basement retailers such as Wish, Temu, and AliExpress. TikTok, although never exactly a flawless source of recommendations, has had at least some utility as a venue for real reviews of stuff you might want to buy from regular people who are trying to sort through the same endless array of indistinguishable junk that you are. But the junk is winning.

TikTok Shop’s stated purpose is pretty logical: Aggregating the products that regularly go viral on the app and giving creators an opportunity to earn money from recommendations is remunerative for the app, for sellers, and for creators. As long as the end result isn’t spammy or unreliable, it also has the potential to be beloved by users, who are already going out of their way to buy a lot of that stuff anyway. However, it can be difficult to tell what’s happening with TikTok Shop, which lives under a tab within the app’s main navigation bar. Like Amazon, it uses a marketplace model, which aggregates listings created by more than 200,000 third-party sellers into a single shopping portal with a single checkout system. This system allows retailers to offer lots of products without taking the financial risk of buying and managing inventory up front.

Amazon, Walmart, and Target, among both other major retailers and upstarts, use versions of the marketplace model for a significant chunk of what’s available on their websites. Sellers buy the inventory, create the listings, and, in many cases, ship the orders themselves, assuming most of the risk and doing most of the work. The platform takes a cut of their sales in exchange for access to their audience of potential buyers. This model has become popular, because it allows wannabe retailers to spin up the online equivalent of a big-box store relatively quickly and with less initial investment.

The tactic also has some downsides, no matter who is using it. Depending on third parties on a huge scale means that listings can be more unreliable or misleading than those created under in-house supervision, and the inventory risks being low-quality or fake—an issue that even the largest and most powerful marketplace retailers have a hard time controlling. A TikTok spokesperson told me that the app uses a combination of algorithmic and human moderation to remove problem listings, which is a typical approach for marketplace retailers. But some listings go unnoticed until buyers begin to report problems. Listings sometimes use stock images that don’t depict the product they’re actually selling, omit important details on sizing or material composition, or offer counterfeit (and potentially unsafe) products. Even legitimate listings from scrupulous sellers can make for a confusing or scammy-feeling shopping experience, because sellers create a lot of duplicate listings for the same products. That’s especially common on TikTok, where sellers rush to meet demand for the handful of products that have captivated the platform at any particular moment.

All of these issues are immediately apparent when you open TikTok Shop. The particulars of what you see will be tailored to the videos, links, and accounts you’ve interacted with in the past, but if your experience is anything like mine, you are likely to encounter an endless scroll of duplicate listings of dubious legitimacy, most of which advertise products you’ve already been pitched a zillion times on your For You Page. Earlier today, I spent about 20 minutes swiping through my For You Page, which is the primary way that users interact with videos on the platform. In that time, I flipped through 274 TikToks, and more than a quarter of them were recommendations or livestreams linking to products in TikTok Shop.

If a particular recommendation goes viral, its creator stands to profit handsomely. In a follow-up to her original video, the creator behind one of the UNbrush’s most popular reviews posted screenshots of the results in the affiliate system’s user interface. After its first 11 million views, her video appeared to have generated a little over $100,000 in sales, from which she said she’d earned more than $13,000 in commissions. The review now has more than 32 million views, of which I must account for at least a dozen—the video has been pushed into my feed over and over again, as though the algorithm has somehow detected that I have long, curly, ultrafine hair that tangles if you look at it the wrong way.

FHI’s UNbrush seems to be a genuinely useful and well-liked hair tool. But when I toggle over to my account’s Shopping tab, the listings for it are bewildering. Some of them price the brush at $18, the same as you’ll pay at traditional beauty retailers. Others advertise discounts to $14 or $16. Still others price it as low as $2, which strongly suggests that what you’ll receive is a knockoff. Sometimes the listings eventually include, tucked away at the end, an image of the actual product you’ll receive. Confusion over the real UNbrush has launched another round of videos about it, whose creators test the fake and real versions on either side of their head or warn viewers that they’re being scammed, promising that their links will lead to the genuine article.

This cycle isn’t unique to the brush. Last month, the most widely discussed problem was with a popular snail-slime skin-care serum. Next month, it might be Stanley insulated cups, a line of colorful tumblers omnipresent in my Shop-tab recommendations. When I search TikTok Shop for Stanley cup, most of the first dozen or so results have at least a couple of markers of a potential fake product: They come in color combinations or holiday designs that Stanley appears never to have made. Their prices are less than half of those charged by authorized retailers, which get their inventory from the brand itself. The handle is attached lower than it is on a version of the cup I own, and the safety warnings on the cups’ base are printed in a different font. A spokesperson for TikTok said that the platform expressly forbids counterfeit products from being sold on its platform and disputed the idea that counterfeits are nevertheless common in its product listings. (After I reached out, TikTok removed five of the seven suspected-counterfeit listings that I had sent to them, but it did not comment on why.)

The irony, of course, is that the enormous amount of guesswork required to navigate this kind of shopping is the reason TikTok’s review and recommendation videos were so popular and influential in the first place. When you have little confidence that you’re making the right choice among a slew of options, when you suspect that what you think you’re buying might not be the product that will ultimately show up, there’s real value to watching someone hold up the results of their purchase in front of a camera and tell you whether their new eyeliner smudged immediately, or if their new leggings stayed up at the gym.

That TikTok would give in-house sales a try wasn’t a foregone conclusion, but it was pretty close to one. Shopping on social platforms is already popular in China, where TikTok’s parent company was founded. That’s less the case in the U.S.: In 2019, Instagram launched, with limited success, an in-app shopping feature called Instagram Checkout, which allowed established brands and retailers to list their products within the app. Many American shoppers just don’t seem to trust the idea of buying something on a social platform, even if the experience is pretty slick. But people very obviously do trust shopping recommendations on social media, as TikTok has demonstrated for years. There is a fortune to be made if a platform can cut out the middleman of a well-known retailer and get people to buy directly from those recommendations instead. TikTok, still early in its shopping experiment, might eventually figure out how to do that. Right now, though, TikTok Shop is far more effective as a reminder that a lot of the things that can be made to seem glamorous or ingenious in a two-minute video would be better off delivered directly to the Goodwill to which you will inevitably donate them. At least you’d save your future self an errand.

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