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 trick, The Mysterious Hat of Algorithm, I explored how algorithmic commerce tends towards a flattening of culture, conflating followings with fandom, casting prediction as precision, and, to a growing extent, removing human agency.
In trick 2 of the series, I dive into 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.
Let’s explore in more detail...
The Telepathic Trick of TeleCommerce
It was 2016 in China. The country had recently renounced its one-child policy. After 36 years plagued with the systemic abortion of female fetuses, China was left with a population of mainly single men (namely guanggun or ‘bare branches’). The country was on the move. More and more women migrated from their hometowns to metropolises in search of economic opportunities. Lonely men, in abundance, remained in their hometowns and found connection through a new form of online commerce: live-streaming.
By sending "virtual gifts," these guanggun gained intimate views into female streamers' daily lives. When the gift was considerable enough, live streamers would perform more elaborate acts in return, such as singing or dancing. Some also famously carried out extreme acts, such as chugging entire bottles of alcohol or eating maggots. Today, live commerce is estimated to reach 4.9 trillion yuan (~$723B) in China by 2023.
While the need for connection ignited China’s adoption of live-streaming, its origin also hinted at a mechanic that amplifies its power; it is its granted ability for streaming audiences to assert their will against time, space, and others: the ability to telepath.
"’Freddie, Freddie, it's your turn, what do you want?’ My name was called up in a live-stream with over 4,000 people from all over the world. Here I am living in this small town. I felt like I was a celebrity. From thousands of miles away, I felt like I was there, in front of everyone and it was my turn to spin the wheel."
— Freddie, a research participant.
Freddie is a university student who is based in a small town in the UK. In our conversation, Freddie introduced me to the #picknmix trend. This trend is where buyers order random assortments of candy via live-streams. In the case of Freddie, during a #picknmix live-stream, Freddie made an order and was asked to spin a wheel of fortune to receive giveaways. Freddie, a self-proclaimed low-key and reserved person, told me he was amazed at how much his brief “celebrity” moment boosted his morale.
In marrying streaming technology with sellers' ingenious trove of interactive formats, live shopping enables audiences like Freddie to not only enter someone else's space but also purchase their way into altering their reality. Freddie’s story is also consistent with Klarna’s recent study which cites real-time interaction, intimate views of sellers, and reality-show-entertainment quality as some of the main benefits of live shopping.
Live streaming isn't the only way in which telepathy-commerce comes to life. Sometimes the need to transact despite physical constraint truly necessitates.
When speaking with Zamina, an Uzbek who lives in Germany, I learned about a thriving Telegram marketplace managed by Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks living abroad. Zamina works in retail at a fast fashion brand. In addition to her job, Zamina runs several Telegram groups where she receives requests from other Uzbeks to visit fashion stores to take photos of or try on clothes for buyers back home. After each visit, Zamina packages a shipment for all orders, applies her employee discount (when appropriate), ships the clothes back, and makes a profit.
Regardless of the technology, the stories of Zamina, Freddie, and "Guanggun" demonstrate the need and attraction to commerce that help transcend people through space. They also evidence the growing view of consumption as a means to gain control over and assert influence on others.
While feeling better through shopping is nothing new (#shoppingtherapy), the performance of controlling and altering others' reality heightens, for the worse, when it is broadcasted and financially rewarded by the internet.
In a story on the rise of China's live-commerce boom, Rest of World reported hours of racist and misogynistic content produced by Chinese streamers who live in countries like Guinea, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, and Kenya. During these streams, Chinese influencers often portray themselves as wealthy saviors while degrading women as sexual objects and teaching kids to say racial slurs in Chinese.
According to tracking service Bihukankan, in a 4.5-hour streaming session of this trope, Cheng Wei—a Zambia-based Chinese vlogger—sold about $22,000 worth of T-shirts, facial wipes, and watches.
This is not just a story of fame-seeking and money-hungry influencers; it's a story about how our desire to gain superior status and financial rewards online can come at the expense of others. If the "guanggun" were only looking for connection, asking female streamers to eat maggots seems incongruous. When asked why he streamed this content to the world, Cheng Wei said: “Chinese people love watching how other places are not as good as China. If you film some advanced stuff here, people might not like watching. They would rather see lives that are worse than their own.”
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.
Coming up next
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.
Subscribe to get the next one in your inbox
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.