In this series about eCommerce and its tricks, I assess our relationship with online transactions and their magical effects on our behaviors.
In the first two ‘tricks’ I’ve explored algorithmic commerce and telecommerce making an impact on consumers purchasing habits. But what about those making a living from these kind of commerce ecosystems? The next trick, the Magician’s Assistant, explores eCommerce and its assistants - influencers and creators.
The Magician’s Assistants
Crucial to a magic show’s persuasion is the presence of assistants. From dancing to being sawed in half, magicians’ assistants are both an ornamentation and a means of misdirection. On the stage of eCommerce, influencers and creators play this assisting role. As living props, they give form to goods and validate their promises.
An illustrative example of this symbiosis is Shein's relationship with their growing base of influencers. Founded in 2016, Shein is a Chinese real-time fashion eCommerce company. In 2020, it reported $10 billion in revenue and had grown over 100% for each of the previous eight years. Between mid-Feb and mid-May 2021, Shein ranked second in the iOS App Store, only after Amazon for shopping apps in the United States.
Combining a vertically integrated supply chain, exploitative labor practices, and real-time data analytics, Shein offers thousands of garments at unbeatable prices daily. Their infinite scroll of cheap and on-trend looks gives influencers the ability to transform and display that magic en masse; via ‘Shein hauls.’
Shein haul content often depicts their creators unboxing and trying on orders ranging from $400, $800, and even up to $2000; each features hundreds of items. Through these haul videos, creators approximate their audience's transformation through their own, bridging the gap between imagination and manifestation.
While hauls aren’t new, the ease of creating their content is. In the past, becoming a fashion influencer often required brand endorsement or upfront costs.
Today, influencers can afford more outfits, and they are also given more free garments in exchange for their unpaid labor. The massive amount of clothes obtained at Shein price (~$5+) and speed (10,000 new products a day) also point to the fact that hauls have always been about the sport of consumption and never about clothing.
But influencers don’t just haul because they can; they do so because the internet craves haul content. While destructive to the environment, haul content often garners hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube.
Hauls are so quintessential to the influencing industry that they are seen as today’s influencers’ rite of passage. In an interview with Fashion North, a style and beauty journalism platform, influencer Demi Donnelly shared:
“I have always continued to do my hauls because it’s where I started, and it’s what people want to see… If I go a few weeks without a haul, people constantly comment, ‘when is your next clothing haul’?
Why is haul content so popular among climate-conscious Gen-Zers?
Although price is a driving factor, it is not the only explanation for the internet's love of haul videos, especially considering their three-digit price tags. Two potential reasons found in my research are Gen Z’s brewing annihilation view and their dissociation from creators.
Annihilation promotes the idea that nothing matters since the world itself is coming to an end. Given our deteriorating environment and increasing inequality worldwide, this view has gained much more popularity in recent years. An effect of this idea is that it encourages inaction through false equivalence.
"A lot of other companies use children to do their clothes too," said TikTok user Taiksu in defense of Shein critics. While A and B can both be harmful, one can also be worse. The thriving annihilistic view on the internet has created a convenient argument to excuse bad acts like haul content from scrutiny.
Dissociation from creators
Celebrities of the 2000s are often idolized or judged against their premise of being role models. Creators today, especially haul creators, are at times reductively characterized as mannequins for online window shopping. Seven out of ten consumers whom I spoke with didn't see their "subscribed to" creators as someone whose relationship they valued.
"I know these creators and influencers are here to get money from me or their following numbers. I'm their customer and their boss, so as long as I get what I want from them, I don't care what they have to say about other things.”
— A paid Substack member expressed their relationship with their creator.
In a strange turn of events, the magic assistants end up being consumed by the very magic they sell. Today, creators are recognized as business entities, human filters, or mere mirrors.
Their humanity is reduced to whether their body can be a good "size reference" or whether they come with promotional codes or giveaways. Creators' eroding sense of humanity in the eyes of their viewers enables consumers to exclude them from our shared world; and in doing so, mentally excuse them from their questionable haul content.
“It's not that they care about Emma Chamberlain's coffee. Emma knows nothing about coffee. These girls buy Chamberlain coffee beans because they want to be Emma.”
— An influencer explained why creators buy Chamberlain coffee.
You need a success story to sell anything, including becoming successful influencers like Emma Chamberlain or Charli D'Amelio. Charli D'Amelio is a US teenage girl who found her fame through dancing TikTok videos.
Emma Chamberlain started her career as a relatable girl who spoke openly about her depression. She became famous with her series of one-dollar store haul videos. Charli now sells fragrances, owns a clothing line, and even has a reality show on Hulu. Emma runs a coffee company, appeared on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, and even hosted the red-carpet interviews at the Met Gala.
As leaders of the modern QVC trade, the successful minority among creators validate the transformative power of assisting online commerce. They subsequently productize their transformation into downloadable tips or shoppable commodities. These commodities have little to do with their intrinsic value but everything to do with the magical narrative their creators tout.
To induce mass consumption, online commerce must facilitate mass demonstration of its magic. It needs humans to provide social proof and invoke loss aversion among consumers.
Together, eCommerce and their assistants create an ecosystem where buyers are entertained by user-generated content while buying into the transformative promises of both the goods and the influencing career. But perhaps unbeknownst to the assistants, this commercial system also strips away their humanity, reducing their creativity and community to the logic of virality and monetization.
eCommerce Tricks of Transformation discusses five magic tricks that eCommerce uses to capture our attention and participation:
Trick 1: The Mysterious Hat of Algorithm ->
Along the way of mirroring and giving us "For You" content, algorithmic commerce tends towards a flattening of culture, conflating followings with fandom, casting prediction as precision, and, to a growing extent, removing human agency.
Trick 2: The Telepathic Trick of TeleCommerce ->
TeleCommerce enables consumers to enter someone else's space and purchase their way into altering their reality. While gaining status and control through shopping isn't new, the way we financially reward the broadcast of everything is worthy of further scrutiny and investigation.
Trick 3: The Magician’s Assistant
eCommerce and its assistants (influencers and creators) create an ecosystem where buyers can be entertained while buying into the promises of goods and the influencing career. This system can sometimes reduce creativity and community to the logic of virality and monetization.
Coming up next
Trick 4: The Next-Day Manifestation ->
In pairing the spiritual allure of manifesting ideology with labor-masking technology like next-day delivery, modern commerce dissociates the middle class from the working class and deepens our reliance on "Amazon-fulfilled" goods for self-fulfillment.
Subscribe for more insightful content
Join our beloved newsletter to receive insights like this direct to your inbox, every other week.
10 Things, our bi-weekly newsletter in which our team curate 10 interesting, weird and wonderful articles from the internet. Expect innovation, tech, design and more every other Friday.
Plus, receive our Letter of Rejoice - a quarterly update with news, thought leadership articles, research and updates from the team.