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This Week In Discourse: TikTok Goes Shopping
Great work team! You survived another week on the internet! I’m visiting family this week, so today’s This Week in Discourse is a bit abbreviated. Let’s jump into the Discourse.
Also - this released without a title and just ‘TWID’ in the subject line. Oops! I blame this on screaming four-year old nephews next to me.1
TikTok Goes Shopping
If you’ve been on TikTok in the last week, you may have noticed the introduction of TikTok Shops. You can now buy products that your favorite influencers are talking about directly from TikTok’s app. The company is putting heavy emphasis on the new feature, going so far as to deeply subsidize deals in the coming months, aiming for a Black Friday splash. This is yet another way in which Western social media apps are chasing the dream of the Everything App.
The most prominent example of the Everything App is WeChat in China, which is capable of messaging, audio/video, holding meetings, translation, social networking, shopping, payments, ride sharing, food delivery, and more. But TikTok’s play is more similar to Douyin, the Chinese short-form video app where live-shopping is wildly successful. On TikTok, it’s traditionally been hard for creators to monetize their fame - they can’t directly run ads on a 10 second videos and are instead paid out of an abysmally small Creator Fund. Creators often run sponsored content, but it’s always been much easier to make money from a large YouTube audience than it is on TikTok. In contrast, Douyin is known for its live shopping feature and popular personalities often spend most of their time hawking products, QVC-style. Some of the most popular internet personalities in China are essentially pure salespeople with no content outside of selling.
TikTok wants in on this, but there are structural obstacles standing in their way. I’ve written before for Foreign Policy that Everything Apps are essentially impossible in the Western tech world, and that hasn’t changed. Chinese everything apps filled legitimate holes in the Chinese netizen experience, whereas those holes don’t exist in the Western market - they’ve already been filled by gigantic and highly competent companies (with Amazon as the biggest example). Instagram has rolled out this feature with Instagram Shop, but earlier this year began rolling back emphasis on the service and even removed the Instagram Shop button from their home page. Facebook and YouTube have also struggled with live-shopping features that haven’t found any success.
I think TikTok has a better shot at this than any of their other competitors, simply because TikTok is the service with the most buzz and clout right now (and because the Chinese version of TikTok clearly shows it can work in the Chinese context). But I also think there are strong, structural factors that are likely to stop them from succeeding. The first is boring stuff - fulfillment, shipping, distribution, customer service… logistics, basically. Tech companies don’t have much expertise in these areas, and they’re often much harder to get right than you’d think. The genius of Amazon has never been in their technology2, it’s always been in their phenomenal logistics capabilities that no one else can replicate.
It’s also not clear that American users even want this. The company seems to be algorithmically prioritizing videos that include a ‘Buy’ button, but this has a cost - there are already complaints in major publications about how the For You tab sucks now and is filled with blatant ads. People typically enjoy things on TikTok because the creators or videos seem authentic, and turning the For You feed into a series of mini-home-shopping-channels could ruin the vibes that keep users scrolling. I suspect that the Chinese market and the US market are just fundamentally different in how much blatant salesmanship they’ll tolerate as part of their influencer content, and it’s going to be tough for TikTok (or anyone) to break through that cultural wall.
EJMR gets doxxed
A couple of months ago I posted about EJMR and the Ethics of Doxxing. The basics of that story - EJMR is a highly toxic site where anonymous accounts engage in bigoted and harassing behavior focused on the field of economics. Because the site wasn’t coded very well, researchers were able to figure out how to geolocate the majority of the users based on their public handles, making the users not-so-anonymous after all.
No regular users of EJMR have actually been doxxed or had their identities exposed at this point. The researchers instead have used this data to show that there is regular posting on EJMR from major universities, federal agencies, and so forth, which in their view is a problem because of EJMR’s toxicity and bigotry. The conversation has mostly continued to revolve around the ethics of EJMR itself - it’s very embarrassing for the economics profession that one of the largest discussion forums for economists is essentially 4chan-for-econs. But there was nothing anyone could do about it, because the internet is an open place and the site’s administrator was an anonymous account called ‘Kirk’.
That changed thanks to an anonymous Twitter account which this week exposed the identity of the site’s admin.
The evidence is highly convincing, and all OSINT-style3 reporting that makes it clear that David Llywelyn Griffith-Jones is the owner and operator of EJMR. The evidence includes Kirk leaking his own birthday that matches Griffith-Jones’s birthday, evidence of Kirk leaving job reviews for jobs that perfectly match Griffith-Jones’s professional experience, and Griffith-Jones owning other economics-related websites that share identical chunks of netcode to EJMR.
There are several interesting things to note here.
Most of the profession is mad at EJMR because they’re perceived as right wing, home to racist and sexist discussions, and damaging to the reputation of the field. But at least one of the OSINT-types who exposed Griffith-Jones’s identity did so because they thought he was a hypocrite - he allowed for bigoted and harassing discussions of other economists but shadow-deletes any mention of his own name.
Griffith-Jones is the son of Stephany Griffith-Jones, a trailblazing female economist who is both highly influential and successful and known for breaking down barriers for women in the field. It’s very, very ironic that David runs a site that is so often sexist and demeaning to women in economics given who is mother is.
This OSINT investigation seems to have been entirely separate from the original researcher controversy - that focused on entirely different aspects about how the site’s anonymous IDs were hashed. But as so often is the rule on the internet, one piece of bad news or scandal can attract enough eyeballs that other bad news/scandals will be exposed.
Being honest here - you should skip this section. Nobody needs more Elon news. He’s Trumping us with constant controversy to stay in the news cycle. But since I can’t really report on social media without talking about Elon, here are the biggest stories this week:
Twitter decided to hide quote tweets - they’re still accessible but harder to find. Reactions range from “Elon was tired of getting ratio’d” to “Actually this is good because the quote tweet is a toxic feature”.
The new Elon biography dropped, and Platformer has some of the wildest details, such as “Elon is open about the giving the Chinese Communist Party special treatment on Twitter because they can threaten his Tesla business” and “Elon knew the Twitter Blue rollout would be a disaster but did it anyway”.
Today in tabs has more good Elon content, including on the monkeys that Neuralink may have killed and how Elon’s biographer essentially hid in a corner to catch juicy gossip.
In other news, advertisers continue to flee Twitter and seem unlikely to come back any time soon.
Elon deliberately screwed a ton of the people he fired out of their contractually-obligated severance payments, and got sued for it. Now he seems like he’s going to have to pay a huge settlement.
Also, this seems like the perfect distillation of my Elon is a genius and also an idiot post:
If I’m going to be punished to the eternal hell of writing about Elon every week, you can at least subscribe to Infinite Scroll
Links and Posts
Parrots aren’t just smart birds who can imitate human voices. They also seem to understand social media interfaces.
A fantastic thread on a wellness influencer who tells people that needing glasses is fake and essential oils can cure near-sightedness
This really says something about the Zoomers - there’s a TikToker racking up millions of views just reading the New York Times to her TikTok audience.
Bro-culture sports site Barstool Sports had a sophisticated copyright evasion system for social media exposed
The latest arms race in AI is between AI text detectors and detection evading services
The NPC trend is gaining steam
Wake up babe, new Wikipedia drama dropped
And to wrap things up: Dudes can’t stop thinking about the Roman Empire4
Screaming 4 year olds are honestly are a great encapsulation of the the internet’s id
Open Source Intelligence - connecting the dots on publicly available information
There have been an exasperating number of attempted thinkpieces on the Dudes Thinking About Roman Empire meme, and they’re all kind of dumb. My only real takes are A: Dudes Rock B: This is funny, don’t overthink it or analyze it, C: If you must overthink it, realize this is all selection bias and the dudes who don’t think about the Roman Empire don’t make it into the video.