So much of our life has been and continues to be, shaped through online commerce. Half the time, it is miraculous; the other half, it is fleeting and overwhelming. In this series, I compare our enigmatic relationship with eCommerce to the spectacle of a magic show, one that is staged together by the many "premiums" and online purchases we string on ourselves.
Our infatuation with and reliance on the magic of eCommerce is the premise of my research. To assess our relationship with online transactions and their magical effect, I conversed with consumers, creators, internet hustlers, business owners, and tech entrepreneurs. The outcomes of these conversations were then complemented with secondary research to give you eCommerce Tricks of Transformation.
In this series, I discuss five magic tricks that modern commerce uses to draw our attention and participation.
eCommerce Tricks of Transformation
If you asked me—and presumably, my fellow TikTok power users—what the soundtrack of growth and progress in 2022 was, I would point you to the bridge of AJR’s World's Smallest Violin. Often played as a soundtrack to Shorts, Reels, and TikTok videos about a creator’s growth or a business’ success journey, World’s Smallest Violin’s optimistic tempo and friendly hook make the perfect anthem to transforming through modern commerce.
My first exposure to this song and its modern take on the rags-to-riches trope was through Imogen’s viral TikTok (above). Imogen is a fashion graduate turned business owner, designer, and TikTok creator. She started her made-to-order fashion brand, IMISTUDIOS, while staying at her parent’s during the pandemic. Her business gained traction through social media and landed significant brand collaborations, press mentions, pop-up events, and even caught the eyes of Doja Cat and Christine Quinn.
I chatted with Imogen about her experience buying, selling, and promoting her brand online. We discussed the physical and mental toll of simultaneously pleasing the audience and the algorithm. We then pondered over the fleeting nature of online communities and Imogen's reluctant reliance on social media to grow her business.
"What three words would you use to describe your experience with online commerce?”
"Frustrating, rewarding, and transformative.”
It's frustrating because "you can spend so much time creating something you are proud of, and it can flop." It's rewarding because "when your content performs well, it does so in ways you can not even imagine." For the most part, it's transformative because "I'd not have my business today without TikTok and Instagram," said Imogen. It was through my conversation with her that the first trick of eCommerce began to take shape.
The Mysterious Hat of Algorithm
The hat trick is one of the most elemental acts of a magic show. During its performance, a magician keeps their audience's attention by placing in and pulling out different objects from the hat. One moment a rose is put inside, and the next moment, a dove flies out.
The appeal of a hat trick lies in the discrepancy between what goes in and out of it. Similarly, online commerce encourages participation by manipulating the input and output between content creation and engagement metrics.
On the one hand, the increasing number of tools gives online business owners a sense of control by mastering content creation templates. On the other, the algorithm is an unpredictable factor, making it difficult to produce desired outcomes.
In this constant flux between hopes and frustrations, small business owners are left with little choice but to constantly recalibrate and feed the algorithmic hat, hoping their next success will be an upload away.
While intangible in form, algorithmic mystery results in changes with tangible impact at cultural, community, and individual levels. At the cultural level, the algorithm reduces cultural diversity to formulaic and absolute common-denominated creations.
Most notably, music is increasingly optimized for algorithm-trained ears. Between 2000 and 2018, songs on the Billboard Hot 100 have reduced from 4 minutes-10 seconds to roughly 3 minutes-30 seconds. Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road which spent 17 weeks at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100, clocks at 1 minute-53 seconds.
Adjacent to this development is the rise of interpolations and sped-up songs. When Steve Lacey’s music label asked if he wanted to put out a sped-up version of his song, Bad Habit for 69 cents, his response was: “Ew, that sounds fucking gross.“ But OK, sure – I’m No 2, and I want to be No 1, so go ahead.” In the age of modern commerce, culture first navigates around, then along the way, obeys algorithmic laws.
While social-graphed platforms like Instagram promote group building, interest-graphed algorithms decentralize relationships, prioritizing content display over creator advocacy. As a result, algorithmic commerce conflates following with fandom.
With over 1.4 million followers on TikTok and 2.5 million followers on Instagram, Grace Africa is a successful influencer by many measures. On September 2022, she organized a meet-and-greet as part of VidCon. Unfortunately, no one showed up at her event. A similar situation occurred with another beauty influencer, MsDarcei, while the enthusiasm for A-listed influencers like Charli D'Amelio also reportedly waned throughout the event.
A less-discussed but nonetheless potent way in which algorithms take hold of individuals' livelihoods is their tendency to cast prediction as precision. Last year, I spoke with Jason, a grocery delivery driver, about his job. Jason loves his job; delivering gives him a chance to rediscover his hometown and meet new people.
However, Jason dreads his boss; in particular, his algorithmic boss. From delivery routes to delivery lengths, Jason's labor is directed by machine. Jason shared:
"Sometimes, the app doesn't know that there is a huge road reconstruction so its estimated time is so low. I often have to race against the clock to meet its required time and I’m still late. When that happened, I would get into trouble with my boss, and my customers wouldn’t be so kind with me either.”
— Jason, a grocery delivery driver.
In his book, 12 Inevitable Tech Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kevin Kelly made a case for technology’s tendency to cognify: imbuing inanimate objects with intelligence. In the same vein, it tends towards automating decisions and reducing outliers.
Along the way of mirroring and giving us "For You" content, algorithmic commerce homogenizes our culture, fabricates fandom, and vacates our agency. But the show is not nearly over; for magic's power lies in the belief of its observers.
The algorithm’s process of flattening intelligence requires both our willingness and conviction to take place. It means we can still take back control or even radicalize our relationship with algorithms.
Taking a step back from algorithmic dependency might mean a step back from sudden fame and a step back from quantity-driven creation and consumption. And perhaps most difficultly, it is a step back from convenience. It also means taking a leap of faith in new creatives, a step towards deliberation, and a step towards connecting through difficult conversations; not just entertaining or joyous content.
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.
Coming up next
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.
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