weekly feature | Aug 16, 2023 |
What the latest TikTok dustup tells us about design culture online

In early August, TikTok erupted with yet another case of influencer-on-influencer drama—but this time, the design world was at the center of the conflict. It all started with a video by a creator who goes by the name Tay BeepBoop, who specializes in sharing eclectic DIY and design projects with her 2 million TikTok followers. In the clip, Tay lays out an accusation: The recent projects of a fellow creator on the platform named Kaarin Joy (2.1 million followers) have looked very similar to Tay’s.

Tay brings the receipts. First, viewers see her hand-made mirror, lined with moss, lichen, flowers and butterflies, followed by a clip of the other creator’s mirror—which, to be fair, looks very similar. Then, there’s Tay’s gallery wall consisting entirely of monster head sculptures, followed by the same concept in the other creator’s home, but with dinosaur heads. The comparisons keep coming: a blue-and-green color scheme, an orange couch, a room with an entirely gradient color scheme—you get the picture. The smoking gun: Joy had purchased cake-patterned wallpaper from Tay’s own licensed line through Vancouver-based brand Otto Studio.

It’s the kind of video that usually inspires outrage on TikTok. In most cases, fans leap to the offended creator’s side, flood the comment section with support, conduct a mass-unfollowing of the other creator, make their own videos about the event and, finally, force the offending creator into an apology video.

But this time, the opposite happened: That hostility was turned back on Tay. First, legions of angry users from within the TikTok design and DIY community sprung to Joy’s defense. A new account called InteriorDesignDrama screen-recorded the video and posted it after Tay’s had been taken down—now, that reposted video has 1.8 million views and nearly 3,000 comments. Even users from outside the design community got involved, making videos in support of Joy, who soon posted her own statement: “I just want to ask that we move on and have peace on both sides,” she wrote. “While I don’t agree with how this was handled, I don’t believe anyone deserves hate on the internet.” (Neither Tay nor Joy responded to requests for comment on this article.)

Just a few days later, Otto Studio issued its own statement on Instagram, announcing that its Tay BeepBoop collaborations would no longer be available for purchase. “As a small business, we strive to support and uplift artists, creators and DIYers,” the statement read. “We are disappointed in and do not stand behind the video that was posted by Tay BeepBoop regarding Kaarin Joy earlier this week. It goes against our values and the ethos of the DIY community.” (Otto Studios did not reply to a request for comment.)

Tay’s mea culpa came shortly after. In the video, she issues an apology to Joy, referring to her own behavior as “wild and inappropriate,” saying: “Everyone draws inspiration from somewhere, and the fact that I went after someone who has been nothing but nice to me, and has done nothing to deserve what I did, just proves how much I got this wrong.” The would-be canceler had become the canceled.

This was weeks ago—an eternity on social media. Design TikTok has already moved on. But what may feel like just another influencer dustup points to a strange cross-section of TikTok culture, the DIY spirit and the ever-growing desire to turn an online audience into a brand empire.

The comments section is the perfect place to begin to understand why the vitriol was directed at Tay—the accuser—rather than Joy—the accused. There, users harshly criticize Tay’s belief that she originated any of the designs mentioned in the video (“My bedroom was green and blue when I was 12,” one commenter quips) and suggest Tay take it as a compliment that her designs were worth replicating. Others seem perplexed. “What confuses me [about] these videos is where do we draw the line?” one user wrote. “If I see something on Pinterest, can I not replicate it while adding my own twist to it?”

It’s a tricky question, but many on TikTok believe that replication is no sin—rather, it’s the engine of the design and DIY community online. According to interior designer and TikTok creator Bilal Rehman, the general ethos is that design should be open-source—after all, inspiration is instantly accessible, especially when you document yourself executing each step of a craft or project.

“The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is, once you create something—whether it’s online or in person—and you put it out there, it’s really no longer yours,” he says. “That’s what allows the community to continue to grow and evolve, because somebody might take my idea and do it in a slightly different way that I would have never thought of, and all of a sudden it is 10 times better.”

Fellow interior designer and TikTok creator Tyka Pryde Edwards, however, understands Tay’s frustration—she’s been in the same position of having her video formats or style references copied by other users. Tay’s offense, she says, was that the original video was mean-spirited, with the intent to draw backlash toward Joy. But it does reveal a deeper tension: “It’s flattering [to be copied] in one way, but in another, you do feel almost violated—like someone is stealing your creative property, especially if they’re getting a ton of views,” she says.

Tay might not have been wrong to be upset. The problem is, her home designs were not her creative property—not yet, at least. According to Julie Turkel, a brand and licensing expert specializing in influencers and the design industry, Tay was on her way there. The first step to claiming creative property is usually to use it consistently throughout your branding and designs. “The more you do that, the more people associate that with you, and the less likely that somebody equally big in the space would see it as fair game to copy,” she advises.

The other element is building that intent into your business strategy. Turkel points to Athena Calderone, whose Brooklyn loft has been extensively shared on Pinterest and replicated by countless homeowners. Calderone might not have any control over those homeowners, but she was able to partner with Crate & Barrel and capitalize off the popularity of her ideas by creating her own line.

Tay was stuck somewhere between these two steps. Her design style was becoming recognizable and distinctly her own on TikTok, and she had just begun to monetize with her partnered line with Otto Studio—but that’s where her ownership stopped short.

To comprehend how the situation got so heated, it helps to delve even further back into internet history. More than a decade ago, the success of an internet trend or meme was measured by how far and wide it spread, explains Crystal Abidin, a professor of internet studies at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, whose research focuses on TikTok culture. With the rise of influencers and growing commercial opportunities involved in capturing and sustaining attention online, Abidin says our collective understanding of success has shifted in recent years: Meme and trend originators now want to be credited as the source of their ideas—and risk losing out on a paycheck, even a new career path, if they aren’t.

The twist is that a focus on attribution is at odds with the spirit of the DIY community online, which rose up in the wake of the recession and tends to push back against values like ownership and competition in favor of accessibility and affordability. (Scavenging, making items with your own hands and sharing that information readily with the community are all highly regarded actions among DIYers.) “On each new platform, these online communities need to negotiate which of their values carry over, and which do not,” says Abidin.

That puts the design and DIY community in an interesting position. On one hand, TikTok has long had a sore spot when it comes to stolen ideas. Back when the platform first began taking off in the early days of the pandemic, controversy arose when several white creators rose to fame replicating dances by Black creators, who didn’t receive credit for their work or reap the rewards. With that precedent, the “callout” video became a powerful tool, allowing creators to appeal to the public to come to their support in the event of injustice.

“In callout culture, there are implicit norms about who you ally with and where solidarity lies,” says Abidin. “Let’s say this [conflict] was a corporation that had stolen from a creator—all of this would be justified, and everyone would be rallying [against] the big, bad corporation.” In this case, however, both creators are on a somewhat similar playing field with roughly the same-size audience—making it hard for users to see Tay as anything other than a bully.

Despite Tay’s apology, the rate at which online drama plays out is swift: TikTok’s algorithm prizes replay-ability and increases the potential for virality by pushing out videos to users outside the typical following of a certain category. Plus, according to Turkel, many licensing partners today include strict clauses in their contracts with celebrities and influencers about being able to terminate their partnership immediately in the event of any negative publicity. That means that even if you’re on the “right” side of a scandal, you could still stand to lose everything.

“More and more, licensing partners just don’t want to suffer. You see this culture where if an influencer does something outrageous, you’ve got all these fans tagging every single partner they’ve worked with, telling them to drop them,” she says. “Especially if you’re a small manufacturer and you don’t have the resources, you just do not want to get involved or have that kind of negativity in your business.”

Despite the intense backlash, it’s not all bad news for Tay. Her following hasn’t dipped significantly (she still clocks around 1.9 million followers), though she has yet to post again since her apology video weeks ago. If TikTok’s attention span remains as short as usual, she’ll find a way back into the online community’s good graces soon—and the design industry will lay low until its next moment in the viral spotlight.

Homepage image: Generated by Midjourney

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.