The Internet Is One Big Peer Pressure Campaign

On TikTok's pivot towards social commerce and David Dobrik's Dispo app

Welcome to gen yeet! Yes, I have seen the latest generational discourse. Something about how middle parts are “in” and skinny jeans are “out” and how the laughing-crying emoji 😂 is “uncool.” Please don’t fall prey to peer pressure campaigns mounted by kids on the internet. The girlboss cliché, “Girls don’t dress for boys, they dress for themselves,” applies to not caring about judgmental teen fashion tastes! For the record, I rock a side part that is slightly off-center, and I am a proud contrarian when it comes to appearance-related trends. I refuse to compromise what works for me: side-ish part, diversity in my denim collection, and subtly arched eyebrows. No comment on emojis, although as a society, we should not trust any person who uses the pleading face emoji 🥺 unironically.

THIS WEEK’S TOPICS: How social commerce can usher in a new era of Peak Haul; Dispo, the hot photo-sharing app on the block; and some thoughts on TikTok and music discovery.

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Social commerce and the return of Peak Haul

My Instagram shopping cart is where I temporarily bury my most ridiculous shopping impulses. Since Instagram began streamlining its checkout process last summer, the cart became my last flimsy line of defense. I began using it as a flawed bookmarking function, and it has become a graveyard of sorts: Here, I lay to rest my fashion must-haves before I, of sound mind and body, purchase the most worthy items. Last weekend, I was adding some silk trousers to my very full cart while reminiscing about the days of Peak Haul — a time when I felt justified buying shoddy polyester Forever 21 tops because everyone was hauling. And then I realized, finger hovering over the checkout button, that social media platforms are actually easing us back into that materialist hellscape. I naively thought we’d evolved past this period of excessive consumerism (who am I kidding, Gen Z is quietly hooked on fast fashion), and Instagram was having the last laugh.

For background, Peak Haul was an era on Youtube defined by overconsumption. Haul culture thrived in the late 2000s, and the phenomenon stretched into the mid-2010s. Excess was captivating, especially to impressionable teenage viewers like myself, who had too little money to spend and too much time for the internet. NPR described hauls as “the ultimate materialistic PG porn,” as viewers indulged on the thrill of retail voyeurism. Seasonal closet switch-ups and consumerist holidays were worthy occasions to haul or, in my case, to watch haul videos, wishing for the on-screen clothes to materialize in my closet. The fashion vloggers I subscribed to raked in millions of views sifting through bags of cheaply manufactured clothes, casually offering trite remarks about “how cute” an item was.

Peak Haul was also a peaceful time. Comments sections were largely devoid of questions about ethical consumption and accountability. Fast fashion was a vice, but not yet a sin. The bug of overconsumption in a post-recession world was promising, until the retail apocalypse: Department stores went into decline, slowly then suddenly. A fashion brand’s survival depended on their online presence, and a crop of new direct-to-consumer sites cropped up as competition. A new generation of teenagers discovered Goodwill and began reselling clothes on Depop and Poshmark, and more Youtubers began championing sustainability, or were moved to shop more ethically. Haul culture is far from dead today (a quick Youtube search will suggest otherwise), but performative overconsumption has lost its cultural relevance.

People are still buying things, and vloggers and influencers are still suggesting things to buy. That hasn’t changed. The expansion of “social commerce” features on mainstream platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Youtube suggests that young consumers could be in for another era of Peak Haul. This time, it’s not just retail voyeurism. The affiliate links won’t be hidden in the description box, or diligently timestamped in the comments section. Everything will simply be easier to buy, and you won’t even realize it because your digital carts are never full. Shop ‘til you(r internet) drop(s)!

How are platforms prioritizing social commerce?

  • If I was not exhausted from living through unprecedented times, I would be tired of navigating through Instagram’s frequent feature updates and changing interface. Last fall, Instagram radically altered its layout to prioritize its Reels and Shopping features. As brainwashed digital peons, we’ve already grown accustomed to the change, but the update makes clear Instagram’s (and its parent company Facebook’s) priorities: Make money through e-commerce sales. In the past year, Facebook has launched native storefronts on both apps, expanded live shopping capabilities, and streamlined how brands can plug products for purchase.

  • Youtube is testing an integrated shopping feature that allows creators to display products in their videos that viewers can buy directly. The company has also reportedly tested a Shopify integration, allowing a handful of Youtubers to list up to 12 items for sale below their videos. (Bloomberg)

  • TikTok has a new public page devoted to its upcoming shopping function. Seller University explains how brands and third-party sellers can set up digital storefronts and sell items to viewers. Sellers can either sell products on their own or through TikTok Affiliate, in which a brand can create a promotion plan and invite TikTokers to sell items for a commission fee. A brand researcher told Modern Retail’s Michael Waters it seems like “TikTok wants everyone to sell in-app, not just small businesses.” Read Waters’s in-depth explainer on what TikTok’s shopping function might look like and what it means for brands.

It seems that, over the next year, the major social platforms we’ve grown to despise will revamp their interfaces to pressure users into buying more. Peak Haul will return. Viewers no longer have the attention span — or the desire — to watch a poorly edited 20-minute “try on” haul video. Why would they, when a TikTok can convince you to buy something in less than 30 seconds? Overconsumption can appear more palatable if absorbed in bite-sized clips.

VSCO girls, Dispo boys

A few days ago, FOTN (friend of the newsletter) and Mel Magazine writer Joseph Longo texted me: “We need a name for the type of alt guy whose aesthetic is low res old iPhone photos on Instagram.” These are the 20- and 30-something guys whose online vibe is artsy, slightly rugged, or “alt,” as one might say. The most performative posers ramp up the grain effect on VSCO, but the real hipster heads exclusively post digital copies of their developed film to Instagram.

Now that David Dobrik’s photo-sharing camera app Dispo is garnering attention — and funding — from investors and the Gen Z Dobrik hive, I will do the honor of naming this type of alt guy after the app: Dispo boys. The VSCO girl is not the aesthetic counterpart of the Dispo boy, although they both care about self-presentation on social media. The Dispo boy’s feed is more landscape-focused and mood-driven; it’s not his “vibe” to take photos that show his face. He aims to be vaguely identifiable in artistic self-portraits masqueraded as candids. If the Dispo boy descriptor ever catches on, you heard it here first folks! Of course, this depends on the success of Dispo as an app.

What is Dispo? Dispo can be downloaded from the iOS App Store, although the current iteration offers very limited camera features. The user can take an unlimited number of photos with the flash on, but is required to wait until 9 a.m. the next day to see and save the image. In this way, Dispo mirrors a “disposable” camera. But its most anticipated feature, Rolls, is only accessible through an invite-only beta.

Since I have not yet cinched an invite (unless…), I can only read what other people are writing about the app! Justin Potts, CEO of the marketplace lending platform Avenify, called Dispo “the perfect consumer app” in a short Medium post breaking down its functions. I am most intrigued by the community-driven interactions achieved through Rolls: Users are able to create shared albums, build and contribute to themed Rolls, and discover other users and photo communities.

This community aspect sets Dispo apart from VSCO, which is considered a photo-editing app, although VSCO does allow users to share images on an Instagram-like feed. VSCO’s Discover page, however, is more curatorial and artsy, allowing photographers and visual artists to flex their photo composition and editing skills. While VSCO caters towards people who care about visual aesthetics, Dispo encourages users to post unedited photos from all sorts of contexts, thus making it a one-size-fits-all competitor to Instagram.

My instincts tell me to be wary of the internet hivemind: I’ve seen plenty of bullish takes on Dispo from techfolk (some of whom have a stake in the app’s success), and its $100 million valuation indicates there’s clearly investor confidence. Dobrik’s fans and social network of influencer pals will undoubtedly hop on the promotional bandwagon once Dispo’s community features are publicly rolled out. Thus, the wheels of another peer pressure campaign are put into motion. Time will determine whether users will prioritize Dispo over other photo-sharing apps, and if there’s enough intrigue to hook them onto the product long term.


Letter(s) of recommendation

A curated section of content recommendations from yours truly. I, like Mr. Martin Scorsese, cringe at the word “content,” but that is the most succinct descriptor of what I’ve listed below!

The recommendation: Something Old, a newsletter by music writer Miranda Reinert. Some of my favorite editions: on the diminishing value of new albums, and how we shouldn’t mistake content creation for music journalism.

The takeaway: “Driver’s License” took TikTok and the music world by storm upon its release in January, breaking the record for the most Spotify streams of a song in a single week (60+ million). Since the single’s sudden virality last month, I began thinking more about my own music discovery and streaming habits.

Reinert’s newsletter has been so clarifying and honest to read as a music enthusiast: “The way we discuss music is inherently tied to the way we listen to it. Right now that’s Spotify and short form release. A growing importance put on singles with the hope of being picked up by TikTok or by a Spotify editorial playlist only exacerbates our attention span with art.”

The dispatch I linked didn’t explicitly mention Rodrigo or “Driver’s License,” but Reinert’s observations about the current state of music journalism is required reading: how coverage often fails to reserve ample space and attention for musicians with small social followings, or those who exist on the margins of TikTok’s algorithm, especially as the app plays a greater role in determining how songs become charting hits.

I’m also thinking about:

If you’re feeling generous and wish to support my free work, please Paypal or Venmo me @nguyenterry. I plan to donate all funds to community restoration organizations geared towards serving the Asian American Pacific Islander diaspora, and mutual aid networks aiding Texans in need. Also, I’m always soliciting feedback for the newsletter. As always, thank you for reading!

t.n.