This piece originally appeared on the author's blog.
Not too long ago, Matthew Crawford wrote in the New York Times a piece on the toll that pervasive advertising takes on its surrounding environments and viewers:
We've auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging.
Crawford discusses the "cacophony" of private-public spaces dominated by advertising, though it's worth noting that the problem of advertisements fighting for our attention isn't confined to physical space.
It's not uncommon to hear the Internet mentioned as a "virtual plaza," or the "town square" of the "global village" -- and just as with privatized public spaces in the physical world, our meeting places online, our very conversations and dialogues, are increasingly open to brand names that (quite literally) follow us, entreating that we speak with them.
Here's the most recent brand that panhandled a conversation off me: on a walk yesterday, I bought a large coffee from Dunkin' Donuts; it wasn't until I was later sitting at my desk that I noticed this message on the cup: "Share your Dunkin Donuts story. #mydunkin."
Dunkin' Donuts here creates a sort of digital coffee shop -- a space (the hashtag stream) for people to gather and discuss, well, the very product that Dunkin' served them. Of course, the messages within the hashtag aren't confined to just a single stream; the covert Dunkin' Donuts advertising/endorsement is broadcast to the writers' followers. We all become spokespeople for the brand when sharing the #mydunkin story -- though photos of cups of coffee are hardly unique or very insightful into the individuals' lives; #mydunkin story might as well be yours, or anyone's.
This much is obvious. Everyone on the Internet knows how hashtags work. But I am curious about how brands have inserted themselves into everyday communication online, in fact creating the spaces for discussion themselves while encouraging us to join them. Consider when @tacobell answers back to your southwestern-flavored tweet as if to say, maybe disconcertingly, "Hey, I know what you've been saying about me." Or make some popcorn as you eavesdrop on chummy brands talking to each other like tweens on the phone, curlers in hair and legs propped up as in a '90s sitcom. Or, hilariously, try to make sense of brand bots talking to other twitter bots.
I wonder how many people who oppose corporate personhood simultaneously enjoy talking to their brands as they would other humans, becoming "friends" on social media and forming emotional bonds. It's important to note that the faceless social media consultants and interns behind these accounts are themselves humans (sometimes others may be A.I.), though they conceptualize, construct and publish these SEO-optimized bites of communication solely for capitalist interest. It's also worth mentioning that, unlike public-turned-private spaces in our physical lives, these virtual spaces provided to us for socialization have always been private, corporate, and ready to grow and harvest users for money.
If advertising of yore tried to prey on insecurities and the psychology of the public, today they're scouring the glut of what we're discussing each day for keywords that might as well be invitations to solicitation. We don't just navigate through the advertise-patterned spaces Crawford discusses in the Times; our speech is the new architecture for advertising campaigns to develop upon -- we're the cacophony.