Under De-Influence: This TikTok Trend Aims to Get Us to Rethink What We Buy
Here’s a list of things you absolutely don’t need, according to a recent slew of TikToks: a Stanley Cup, a Charlotte Tilbury contour wand, ON running shoes, new seasonal decor, a bubble headband to hold your hair off your face while you do your makeup, or anything that’s on anyone’s Amazon storefront.
Whether or not you own one of these specific items, the likelihood is that at some point you’ve either bought or considered buying something cool, interesting or aesthetically appealing based on the recommendation of someone you’ve seen on social media. That’s just how influencer marketing is designed to work.
But over the past month, a growing wave of creators on TikTok are urging people to resist the lure of influencer marketing and reassess their spending as part of a trend that’s been dubbed “de-influencing,” which has spawned a hashtag that at the time of writing has almost 180 million views.
In the current economic climate, many people are radically reassessing their spending as a reaction to layoffs and rising prices. This has coincided with a debate around the authenticity of influencer marketing, which is forcing people to reassess whether products they’ve bought due to influencer recommendations are as good as they’d hoped. De-influencing at its core is an attempt to break free of the cycle of overconsumption that influencers encourage their followers to participate in.
Some have seen this coming. In a TikTok video last month Mandy Lee, a fashion forecaster and trend analyst, pointed out how last year she’d predicted an imminent shift away from the glamorization of overconsumption toward “thoughtful critique, education, styling and genuine creativity.” Lee said that, to her, de-influencing was “about facilitating conversation.”
“If I can help sell an idea, a theory, a behavior that’s going to help somebody be a more conscious shopper or understand fashion better, to have the tools to arm themselves with knowledge, that to me is what de-influencing means,” she said.
From anti-haul YouTubers to TikTok de-influencers
“I’m here to de-influence you,” is perhaps the most common phrase to appear in TikTok de-influencing videos. This usually precedes the creator telling the viewer about a product they bought due to rave reviews from an influencer but that fell far short of their expectations.
For the TikTok community, the de-influencing trend might be the first time they’ve run into online movements that resist overconsumption, but influencer culture has been here before. Between 2015 and 2017, a number of “anti-haul” videos started to crop up on YouTube. These were designed to be a rejection of still-popular “haul” videos, where fashion influencers flaunt the spoils of their shopping trips, and feed into fast-fashion culture.
Many of those making de-influencing content on TikTok say something along the lines of they’ve been waiting for this to happen or that they’re so glad people are finally talking about it. But to paint de-influencing as an entirely new trend is to disregard the years of effort put in by influencers and activists — many of them Black, Indigenous or other people of color — who’ve long been pointing out the pitfalls of overconsumption.
It doesn’t help, said Aja Barber, a sustainable-fashion influencer and author of the book Consumed, that influencer spaces and the fashion industry tend to cater to whiteness, thinness and youth. “When the message is coming from a messenger that doesn’t fit into the neat little box that the industry prefers, oftentimes, it’s like, ‘Don’t listen,'” she said in an interview with CNET last week.
Barber has mixed feelings about de-influencing as a TikTok trend, but ultimately she’s happy that discussions about overconsumption are entering the mainstream. She’s adamant, though, that de-influencing has to be coupled with an anti-consumption message.
“I’m not saying never buy anything again,” she said. “But the amount that we’ve been buying is criminal, and the ways in which it has harmed the Earth and its people are criminal, and the way it makes us feel ultimately is kind of crappy.”
How to win friends and de-influence people
As a new and loosely defined term, the de-influencing hashtag yields a mix of videos that critique overconsumption and videos that dispel the hype of one product and point viewers toward a better alternative. As many have pointed out, both on and off the platform, this isn’t exactly in the spirit of the trend. The “don’t buy this, buy that instead” mentality isn’t so much de-influencing as it is re-influencing.
When browsing this content, it’s clear that many of those hopping on the bandwagon are failing to make any link between resisting the latest must-have product with sustainability and our culture of buying excessive stuff. On the whole, they seem largely driven by the same factors that drive existing influencers — viral fame, and the money that comes with it. They are in many ways another product of the influencer industry and economic climate, both of which are inspiring more people to turn to content creation as another potential income stream.
The de-influencing trend is sparking finger-pointing in all directions. Influencers who constantly promote a slew of new products, especially people who espouse the life-changing properties of products before never featuring them in videos again, are the most obvious target. But others are blaming influencers’ followers for not being smarter, more mindful consumers.
Fewer people are acknowledging the wider forces at play. Influencers and consumers both are operating within a profit-driven ecosystem where powerful tech companies and brands with advertising dollars are also actively trying to encourage people to part with their cash. It’s unlikely that a trend causing people to hit pause on their spending while they have a group discussion about breaking free from their shopping addictions is on most brands’ lists of favorites for the year.
Platforms such as TikTok and Instagram aren’t set up for building movements around ideas and causes — especially resisting overconsumption. They’re designed to prioritize the individual over the collective, and have consumerism and consumption at their very core. This is why attempts to build solidarity or have nuanced conversations on these platforms tend to fall flat, while those who are selling things — whether that be products, or simply a signature look or an idealized lifestyle — tend to flourish.
Some influencers, like Barber, resist feeding into platform mechanics by refusing to operate as recommendation engines and finding ways to monetize their following in other, less algorithmically driven spaces, such as Patreon or Substack. Not feeding into the algorithm by refusing to shout out brands, use Instagram as advertising space and tag everything she wears has allowed Barber to “hold a space of integrity,” she said.
“I get to be the type of creator where I get to choose how I want to be supported, I don’t feel beholden to brands,” she said. “Everyone knows that I’m not paid to share brands [so] people know that when I am sharing something on my social media, they can actually believe that it’s real.”
No longer under the influence
As users of social media, we don’t have a whole lot of control over the mechanics of Big Tech-owned platforms and the industries built up around those platforms. Our spending and our value systems, however, are another matter entirely.
What the de-influencing trend does provide is space for people to pause and think about their relationships with the influencer industry, with the way they spend, and with the stuff they already own.
In Consumed, Barber makes the link between consumerism, colonialism and the climate crisis, laying bare the ills of the problematic fast-fashion industry. But she also encourages people who already have fast fashion in their wardrobe to actually make use of those items rather than sending them to landfill. “You’ve got to wear it and give it a good life,” she said. “You took it on.”
With the de-influencing trend pegged as a solution to the cost-of-living crisis, I wonder if Barber is concerned about the movement being a fleeting reaction to a temporary economic situation rather than an opportunity for people to educate themselves and commit to a more sustainable lifestyle.
“A lot of people definitely don’t change for the right reasons,” she said. “But I do think that sometimes movements like this can still be a gateway towards change. And once people start to actually figure out why the system is so bad, I find we become quite evangelical about it.”
It’s important to remember, she added, that trends are a product of people taking individual action. “The consumer shapes the conversation,” she said. Together, consumers can cause a cultural shift that completely changes the landscape.