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The hyperspecific gift guides of TikTok

Have a “fuccboi little brother”? There’s a TikTok gift guide for that.

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Your 11-year-old gamer girl niece. Your 32-year-old hypebeast son. Your friend with extremely expensive taste. These are all people who, for most of the year, you love and cherish, but come December fall into the bothersome category of “people who are difficult to shop for.” Practically everyone has at least one person in their lives who fits this description, and despite the thousands of articles that come up when I Google “hard to shop for gift guide,” somehow it does not make finding a suitable present for an adult man that is not “whiskey stones” any easier.

For Nolan White, a 20-year-old college student and content creator in Ontario, that “difficult to shop for” person is, typically, himself. Nolan is stylish with a specific flavor of cool guy taste; he is the kind of person who decks out their bedroom in ambient lighting and knows how to care for vintage wristwatches. He started making TikToks in January as a way to experiment with outfit styling away from the prying eyes of sites like Instagram where people who know you in real life can watch your every move, and before long, commenters began asking for recommendations and how-tos. For the past few weeks, he’s been making TikTok gift guides, where he recommends products for people like him, “the sort of guy who buys everything that he wants for himself the second he thinks of it.”

Nolan is one of the many, many creators on TikTok who, for the past few years, have been publishing their own wish lists and gift guides in video form, less as a sneaky method of informing their loved ones what they want and more as a way to offer ideas for struggling shoppers. There’s one called “gift guide for granola girls” that includes things like Patagonia fanny packs and washable toilet paper, one for older sisters, an under-$50 list for the “extra” girl and the cool girl and the “That Girl.” There are entire accounts devoted to hyperspecific gift guides like @LeahsGiftGuide, which has more than half a million followers. Do you have a “fucc boi little brother?” There’s a TikTok gift guide for that.

TikTok’s audience skews young, so naturally there are lots more gift ideas for the teens-and-20-something demographic than others, but there are also plenty for kids, categorized by age and cost (such as fancy kids’ gifts under $250”), for moms who say they “don’t need anything,” for in-laws, and for non-tech-savvy grandparents. Nolan, for instance, has recently been interviewing his own mom in preparation to make a parent-focused gift guide.

“My philosophy overall is to try and find items that almost anybody could enjoy but very few people would buy for themselves,” he says. Another philosophy: Don’t pretend you know more about someone else’s hobby than they do. He uses his roommate who’s really into vinyl records as an example. “It’s hard as someone who’s not a record collector, being like, ‘How am I supposed to know which edition this is, or whether they already have it?’”

The solution? “I look for something that incorporates a bit of that interest but still sticking with what I know,” he says. “There’s this company called Vinylize that makes sunglasses out of old vinyls, so maybe I find them a cool frame that includes something they would also be interested in and kind of touched by, because I’m not going to be able to find something that they wouldn’t be able to better buy for themselves.”

The idea of gift guides, in recent years, has become something of a lingering question within media, particularly surrounding whether publications should be encouraging readers to consume ever more physical stuff when consuming physical stuff relies heavily on labor exploitation and is slowly destroying the planet. The UK-based site gal-dem, which covers stories related to people of color and marginalized gender communities, published an anti-consumerist gift guide in 2019 that included ideas for art or cooking projects to give loved ones; Vice published a similar list the year before. Though gift guides are still hugely popular (and profitable) for media companies and influencers, more widespread awareness of the failures of capitalism and consumerism have made it more difficult for some shoppers to click “place order” without feeling a pang of ethical queasiness.

Yet I don’t think the joy of putting together a gift guide for strangers comes solely out of a desire to score commissions on affiliate links, despite the fact that this is almost certainly the reason so many publications and popular influencers keep tossing out product recommendations year after year. A cynical take might be that as more of the attention economy is spent watching professional influencers and online creators do their jobs, the more we’ve subconsciously adopted their rituals and mannerisms (“link in bio!” “like and subscribe!” “use my code for discount!”). Perhaps as social media has forced us all to become one-person media empires, product recommendations are the internet’s answer to magazine ads or commercial breaks, creating an endless loop of products to see, buy, and recommend again to one’s own followers.

But I think the reason there are so many gift guides on TikTok is because of a far simpler, if perhaps more unfortunate, reality: That it is extremely fun to shop. For the average TikToker who earns zero or very few dollars doing so, gift guides are simply a hobby. “It’s fun,” says Nolan, “I have people asking for a $500 or $1,000 gift guide, and that’s when you can find some really out-there stuff.” In other words, curating gift guides feels like shopping with money you don’t actually have to spend; they let you imagine a perfectly designed person whose every problem can be solved by customized water bottles or fancy bakeware.

I don’t know how to solve the problem of too much stuff, nor the problem of hard-to-shop-for people. I don’t know why I enjoy watching teenagers I’ll never meet tell me what they want for Christmas. I don’t know why so many of us are willing to shill for the richest man in the world, for no money, all while believing we’re doing someone else a favor.

But it’s the holidays, so here we are, watching free advertisements for terrible companies, watching stylish TikTokers talk to us about things they like, buying more stuff with the best intentions and presenting them to each other in the universal language of consumption. For the record, to anyone reading this in order to drum up gift ideas for me, I’d like a Dyson Airwrap.

This column was first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.