Posted on October 18, 2022 in Technology

Re-Learning Bad Ideas Very Fast on TikTok

Forbidden knowledge is very alluring. In the early days of the internet, articles advertising hacks and ‘tricks’ to get more from a business were titled something like ‘The Secret Banks DON’T Want You to Know!’ to get you to click it. You’ll be ‘getting one over’ on the ‘big guy’. You’ll be gaining street smarts. You’ll be rules-lawyering.

This died out for a bit because it is honestly sort of obnoxious, the websites those hacks come from are usually riddled with ads and unusable (so new writers don’t want to be associated with them by using that title format) and there are only so many hacks that are cool vs. hacks that are just nit-picking and bullying employees.

TikTok, with it’s constant demand for new, fresh, content, has brought those articles back from the brink in a wave.

“Just Return E-Books Once You’ve Read Them!”

Amazon had a policy where you could buy an E-Book, read it all the way through, and then return it to get your cash back. Wowee, that’s super cool! Free books! Until you get to the fine print, where you learn that it really is too good to be true. When you return an E-book, Amazon takes the royalty money back from the author. It doesn’t just eat the cost of the return. It actually takes a fee for processing the return as well, meaning it costs the author more money than they got from the sale in the first place. Maybe if the TikTok influencers portraying this policy as a ‘hack’ knew that, they wouldn’t have shared it so far and wide, but as it was, enough people were abusing the system that the Author’s Guild got involved and Amazon changed its policy. Now, if you’ve read more than 10% of a book, you won’t be able to self-refund it.

This, as a hack, is probably the best demonstration of the problems with TikTok’s ‘hacks’:

A) It is arguably theft – the person returning the book has consumed the content and doesn’t intend to pay for it. When someone at a restaurant demands a refund after eating the entire meal, it’s unreasonable to give them one, right? Especially if they didn’t dislike it and there was nothing wrong with it? They consumed a product, that product took time and effort to produce, they enjoyed the product, they just don’t want to pay for it. It’s horrible etiquette and actively makes life harder for the author. You may as well pirate the book if you’re going to read the entire thing without paying (don’t do that either).  

B) It bypasses the good, free systems that already exist – like libraries. Libraries pay an author money for permission to stock their book. You already pay for these public services with taxes, and the money is not taken from the author if you don’t like the book and want to return it to the library early. ‘What if they don’t have the book I want?’, you may ask? You can ask the library to buy a copy for library use, which is good for the author! ‘But I want to read it on my Kindle’, you may say. Guess what – libraries have that covered too. Many libraries are part of e-book systems! Out here in Las Vegas, Clark County Library and Henderson Libraries are both accessible via the library app Libby, which you can download to your phone or Kindle and set up a library card with, all for free. Comic books, manga, fiction, non-fiction, old books, new books, etc. are all at your fingertips….for free….and without screwing over the author.

Build-A-Bear is the New Starbucks

Other hacks assume that a service offered by a retail establishment is some hidden secret that ‘they don’t want you to know about’. In reality, many of these are just the company being really good at customer service, but revealing that as a ‘hack’ screws that all up. For example, L.L. Bean’s unlimited return policy was really great, but a bunch of influencers spread word about that policy as a hack to get new free stuff by returning thrifted L.L. Bean items, and they changed their policy because it wasn’t being treated like a cool perk of a purchase, it was being treated like a ‘hack’.

In the past, one of the most common manifestations of this was the Starbucks “Hidden Menu”, which does not exist and never has. What the hidden menu actually was, was a collection of crowdsourced drink recipes using Starbucks ingredients, some good, some not, posted to Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram. You could go to Starbucks, hold up your phone with the recipe on it, and have that drink made, but they didn’t have it built into the system, which confused a lot of people who saw these official-looking drinks online but not on the menu. This era of hack themed drinks was a nightmare for baristas, who were asked for a “Cap’n Crunch Frappucino” or a “HufflePuff Iced Coffee” by people who didn’t realize they had to bring a recipe with them for the Starbucks crew to make it; they just assumed the employees had a real secret menu and that’s how the drink existed. Some places do ‘secret menus’ – In-N-Out does this, for example – but ‘secret menu’ hacks online were such a crapshoot that the trend died out.

Until TikTok brought it back swinging, just not for restaurants! Birthday items at kid stores are a fun way of making kids feel special. Build-a-Bear, for example, gives children a special ‘Birthday Bear’ with a birthday-themed heart to put inside it, and the Birthday Bear only costs as much as the kid’s age, up to a limit. A five-year-old gets the bear for 5$, a six-year-old for 6$, and so on. Not everybody knows about the Birthday Bear because Build-a-Bear doesn’t advertise it super hard, but they’re not hiding it from you, same way L.L. Bean didn’t advertise their unlimited return period. If you ask an employee about birthday promotions, they’ll tell you about it, and if you look around the store and website, you’ll likely spot a poster featuring the bear.

TikTok goes nuts for hidden promotion, but it does so in a way that makes it seem as though the retail employees are invested in keeping you from this forbidden secret. An unintended side effect is that customers go in expecting to be argued with. When the TikTok doesn’t clarify terms and conditions to people who can’t seem to understand that a one-minute video is not covering all the conditions, they feel like they’re being argued with. It can feel they’re being cheated out of the rest of the deal if they don’t get it because they don’t meet the terms. Imagine those ‘Free Drink!’ coupons that say in fine print at the bottom ‘with purchase of sandwich’: these TikTok videos are like getting that coupon with the bottom part cut off.

To play devil’s advocate, this was a good format for dealing with, say, airlines – there are many cases where people become eligible for refunds or really good flight vouchers after a flight is delayed or canceled, but the airline won’t go out of their way to provide these to the people who don’t ask. Some airlines make the employees barter with the customers, trying to get them to go away before they’re forced to give them adequate compensation for the trouble. Everywhere else, though, it’s sort of a nightmare.

Posting Too Fast to Fact-Check

The long and the short of it is that the internet has enabled mistakes to be made at very high speeds. If one of those TikTokers posting about the Amazon return system figured out their mistake, they could make a video about it. But, if it didn’t go viral like their first ‘hack’ video did, it’s not going to completely solve the problem. The constant demand for new content doesn’t give them a chance to slow down and really consider what they’re saying, or how their hack is going to be taken, so many ‘hackers’ end up posting the first draft of the first idea they have about a subject without anyone else weighing in. Someone sees that Amazon lets them return a fully-read book – they think ‘Oh, this is a hack!’. Someone sees the Birthday Bear is not heavily advertised – they think ‘Oh! This is a cool secret I can share!’. By the time the people affected by this (the employees, mostly) realize what’s going on, the information has been absorbed in a thin layer all over TikTok, and it would take concentrated effort to undo the assumption that returning the book to Amazon is fine because it’s easy, or that certain promotions have to be verbally beaten out of employees.

We’re right back to the hacks of olde, just in video form instead of still image.