If someone you follow on Twitter or Facebook suddenly seems to be a little too excited about a pair of shoes or a toaster oven, don't be too shocked. They could be getting paid for recommending the products by a new breed of social media shopping sites that send cash to users in exchange for them sending people to retailers via links that the users post.
Here's how the system works. Your friend Debra signs up as a user of a social shopping site like Beso.com. Beso already has contracts with select retailers that pay the site whenever one of their users directs traffic to the retailer. Debra then browses the Internet and Besos-contracted stores and finds products to link to. She posts “Check out this hot denim vest from Target!” on Twitter and one of her followers clicks that link and buys the vest. Target gets paid via the purchase, Beso gets a cut of that sale, and then Besos sends a tiny cut of their profit to Debra. Everyone gets paid, all because of Debra's odd desire to wear as much denim as possible.
It's not like Debra is making a killing doing this (The New York Times reports that Besos only pays about 14 cents per click), but it does bring up ethical questions. Should people say that they're promoting a product only because they're getting paid? The FTC has rules in place that state bloggers must disclose when they are compensated to promote a product, but those regulations were put in place in 2009, and much has changed since then. While Besos says users should include a disclosure such as a “#spon” hashtag, it doesn't require it.
It's up to you to decide what you think about this giant grey area, and keep this in mind the next time someone tweets a link to an item. Maybe they're only doing so because they're getting paid, maybe they're not. Either way, it's probably time to unfollow Debra.