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This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.
If YouTube has its way, we may soon watch makeup tutorials and buy face powder and eyeliner directly from its site. Facebook is airing infomercial-style shows that will encourage people to shop from small businesses, including one that sells dog bow ties.
Lots of internet personalities and businesses already pitch their products on social media. But for the first time in the United States, internet companies seem to be making a concerted effort to make shopping an inextricable and seamless part of the online spaces where we come to be entertained and informed but not necessarily to buy stuff.
Yes, America’s internet is turning into QVC. (People under 30: Email me for an explanation of home shopping TV.)
This is happening for three reasons: greed, fear and China. And the growing mania for digital shopping options is another example of how our experiences online are shaped just as much by corporations’ interests as by our desires.
Let me backtrack to what’s going on and why. For years in China, young people have been in love with shopping webcasts, short videos and social media personalities that both inform them about products and let them buy instantly.
This often happens in the form of in-app webcasts, which my colleague Raymond Zhong has described as “QVC and late-night television infomercials reinvented for the mobile age.” In one such webcast last month, a Chinese online pitchman known as the “lipstick brother” sold $1.9 billion worth of merchandise in a single day.
Technologists have predicted that it is only a matter of time before Americans got hooked on similar blends of e-commerce and social media, but that hasn’t quite happened.
Lots of people and businesses on Instagram, YouTube and TikTok sell merchandise, but they often direct you to buy on Amazon, Sephora or another website. Part of the magic of Chinese in-app shopping is that you can buy something the millisecond that your brain says, “Oooh, I want it!”
I’ve been unsure that Chinese-style online shopping could catch on in the United States. But there are now so many American internet companies pushing this trend that we might change our habits by sheer force of their will.
YouTube executives recently haven’t stopped talking about turning the site into a place for video creators to sell things. This week, YouTube, which is owned by Google, detailed its plans to introduce live shopping webcasts and “shoppable videos” in time for the holidays. Amazon, Snapchat, Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram are going bigger with shopping webcasts and features to buy items directly in those apps, too. So is TikTok, whose Chinese parent company is big in live shopping.
Why is all this happening now? I’ll go back to greed and fear.
Facebook and Google look at the billions of people using their apps every day and want to sell that captive audience some hot sauce and sneakers. (And it’s a good bet that those companies will want a fee from those product sales, although they’re not talking much about that yet.)
Social media companies are also working hard to cater to the people who are trying to make a living from their followings on Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat or TikTok, in order to keep users coming back to their sites. E-commerce sales are one carrot that the internet giants can offer online creators to help them earn more money.
And then there’s fear. Google doesn’t love that most Americans turn to Amazon when they’re hunting for products, rather than to its web search box. Facebook and Snapchat are worried about Apple’s new data privacy rules eating into their advertising sales. Diversifying into e-commerce gives them a plan B. And ad sales alone may not cut it for younger internet companies like Pinterest and Snap.
You’ll notice that my list of whys didn’t include shoppers’ desire to buy lipstick from QVC-style Instagram shows or that miracle cleaner you heard about on TikTok right in TikTok. Yup.
Buying stuff in our favorite online entertainment destinations may be handy, or we might feel meh about shopping where we chat with our Facebook gardening groups. We’ll see. If in-app shopping in the U.S. becomes a bit more like how it works in China, it may not necessarily be because it’s what Americans want, but because it’s what a bunch of powerful companies want.
What’s your take on shopping webcasts and purchasing what you want from sites like YouTube or Instagram? Do you want to buy directly from these platforms? Leave your response in the comments, and the On Tech team will respond to a selection.
Next week I’ll speak to the chief executive of Reddit about how we can have better conversations online. I’ll also get advice from the moderators of some large, healthy online communities, as well as a drag queen who manages a large following. Here’s more information on the event, free for all New York Times subscribers.
Starting on Monday, we will also have a group chat on Slack, where you can talk with fellow readers about the changing role of technology in your life. You will get an invite to the group once you sign up for the event. See you there!
TIP OF THE WEEK
Embrace the friendly bots
Internet “bots,” or automation software used to post on social media or speed through online checkouts, have a bad rap for spreading online propaganda and hogging popular sneakers. But Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, says that we can put bots to good use this holiday season.
Last summer, I wrote a column about how to buy a PlayStation 5. It’s worth revisiting because the consoles are still in short supply.
Not all bots are bad; there are some that tweet as soon as scarce items are back in stock at retailers. (My column included some reliable Twitter accounts, including @PS5StockAlerts and @mattswider, which track PlayStations.) You can set up alerts to notify your phone as soon as these tweets are posted, and then go online and buy.
(Resellers also use bots to buy as many PlayStations as they can and make a big profit on eBay. That we don’t recommend.)
There are other useful tricks if you’re eager to buy a particular product. Instead of waiting for a shopping event like Black Friday, you can buy something you really want now and check to see if the price drops later. Some retailers have a price adjustment policy, in which they will agree to refund some of your money if the price is lower than it was when you bought it.
Costco, for example, has such a policy: If you bought a laptop today and the price dipped during the week of Black Friday, you could fill out a form on its website to get a gift certificate for the difference.
Before we go …
The Department of Justice sued Uber: The government said the company broke the law by requiring extra fees from people with disabilities who needed more than two minutes to get into cars, my colleague Kate Conger reported. The lawsuit dates back to a 2016 Uber policy, which the company said was intended only for riders who kept drivers waiting.
YouTube is hiding “dislike” counts: People can still click the thumbs-down button on videos, but the number of dislikes on a video won’t be publicly visible. This is a tweak to try to prevent large numbers of people from expressing displeasure with video creators by flooding them with dislike clicks, The Verge reports.
“Don’t upgrade something you like simply because a company is hyping a new model,” advises Annemarie Conte, an editor at Wirecutter, The New York Times’s product recommendation site. And Annemarie has more great suggestions for what to do before you buy a new tech thing.
Hugs to this
“NO TALKING AT THE LAB.” This kid is serious about science.
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