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Is this image a pair of shoes or a sponge? TikTok isn’t sure

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TikTok isn’t just a place to offload your celebrity opinions, give strangers a complete home tour, or share a DIY hack. Each video — at least in TikTok’s view — is also a possible advertisement.

As I was scrolling through my feed this week, a video from an account I don’t follow popped up discussing actor Hunter Schafer’s Grammys afterparty outfit. The account has a modest 43,000 followers, and the video has less than 8,000 views. It followed the typical outfit breakdown format: identifying the designer of Schafer’s dress, showing a few different angles, and adding close-up shots of her shoes.

As the video was ending, a button popped up prompting me to view items in TikTok Shop related to the shoes. The blue and orange embellished heels are by Maison Margiela and retail for over $2,000. What could TikTok possibly have for sale that come close to them?

Apparently, nothing. The shoes TikTok pushed me toward looked nothing like what was in the video. Many of the items were not even shoes — after a pair of black patent leather slip-ons ($16) and yellow and brown platforms ($81), the shopping feed took several left turns. I was served a 10-pack of socks for $11.09, a chair that I had been looking at on Amazon a week prior, cooking sauces, a Scrub Daddy sponge, and nylon handbags.

Other TikTok users have noticed the very bad shopping recommendations, too. A shopping link overlaid on Taylor Swift’s Grammys evening gown returns a few dresses that didn’t resemble the outfit in the slightest.

Bloomberg reported in January that TikTok is using automated technology to identify items in videos and then direct views to “similar” items. TikTok already allows influencers to link products directly in their videos, but these haphazard additions are part of a new — and expanding — effort to get people to buy more stuff on the platform. TikTok wants to make all posts shoppable, even content that isn’t shared by influencers. In the case of the video of Schafer’s outfit, it’s unclear if the creator even knows their content is directing viewers to TikTok Shop or if the creator is making any money from the shopping link.

It makes sense why the company would do this. Effusive videos on a specific lamp or lip gloss are seen by millions, and TikTok users hop off the app and promptly buy up the product in droves. In this series of events, TikTok is driving a wave of sales but isn’t directly profiting from it — there’s a sale happening that TikTok isn’t in on. The dream is that users see something they want, buy it right in the app, and TikTok itself gets a slice of the impulse purchase pie. Other platforms like Pinterest have been eyeing this as well, and last year, executives said they wanted to make every post on the platform shoppable.

That any random TikTok could become a portal to a purchase raises a whole host of questions: Will creators have a say in it? Will they, too, get a cut of whatever sales happen as a result of their video? TikTok’s identification system is bad now, but what if it eventually could identify the brand of soap or keyboard in a video and give viewers a direct link to buy it? What’s in it for the person who piqued shoppers’ interest in the first place? TikTok didn’t respond to my request for comment.

More and more, TikTok has felt like an endless shopping list of things I should buy. Calming, ASMR-ish journaling videos eventually devolve into a list of all the brands that make washi tape and pens. Fashion content on TikTok is largely influencers unboxing gifts or recommending products instead of talking about the actual items.

When I recently made a video about the design theory of an artist I enjoy, a commenter asked where I bought a piece of art hanging on the wall behind me — I didn’t even realize it was in the shot. The mind goes to shopping even if it has nothing to do with the content of the video. In the end, perhaps TikTok’s automatic matching doesn’t need to match, either.



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