Note: Thanks to Kate Losse for the phrase and perfect description of “Weird Corporate Twitter.” Her essay is really good & and you should read it.
The evolution of weird corporate Twitter, but in your house this time
It’s 2016, and somehow we find ourselves in a strangely boring dystopian tech future of successful Hamburger Helper mixtapes and brands talking like teens on the internet. Presidential candidates are tweeting memes. There are “Snapchat for Brands” panels at SXSW. I’ve long since lost track of when it’s cooler to like something ironically, or cooler to ignore something ironic because it’s too mainstream.
We live in a culture that puts a disproportionate amount of value and marketing dollars into the young and cool, so relevance dictates that brands spend a lot of time chasing #teens. “Young people” are, of course, the arbiters of cool. Teens have always been a strangely difficult demographic to please. Perhaps there’s always an awkward period in each generation where brands look to appeal to a demographic just younger than their marketers, but new tech that lets us respond to culture instantaneously has finally made the responses good enough to be discussed.
And that’s why it matters. Often, brands are among the most clever and charming voice in our Twitter feeds. (Of course it’s easier to be the funniest one in the room when you’re actually a team of paid people trading shifts, but despite the fact that we know that, we don’t really seem to care.) We like and retweet not only because we want to show that we get the joke, but because the jokes are often an ironically comedic contrast to the actual product. Rambling, semi-incoherent stoner thoughts from a all-American diner is exactly the kind of dark absurdist humor the internet thrives on.
Brands keep pretending to be your cool friend because for the most part, it works. Take the wildly successful Hamburger Helper mixtape, for example. Earlier this year, a line of mediocre easy-make dinner ingredients personified by an anthropomorphized glove put out a mixtape that was streamed more than 6 million times on SoundCloud. The strange stunt might have been mocked if the songs themselves hadn’t actually been good — but they were. The mixtape was clever, self-aware, and most of all, fully committed to the joke. One of the funniest parts of the release was how unhappy people on Twitter were with how much they actually liked it.
Hamburger Helper attributed their success to value of authenticity, but this kind of stunt wins us over in more complicated ways, too. At it’s best, the dorky, informal world of weird corporate Twitter can be vulnerable and endearing. When brands aren’t acting like brands, we listen. And when they are acting like teens, we laugh. Also: occasionally look up things on urban dictionary.
So we could dismiss weird corporate Twitter as an odd collision of marketing and pop culture, but to do so would be to ignore it’s strange success. Dismissing it would also miss an important shift in the design world, which could drastically shape the evolution of this trend, and how we communicate with brands in general.
Enter: conversational interfaces. Most of us are familiar with virtual personal assistants like Google Now, Siri, Alexa, and Cortana, which primarily operate in a mixed world between visual interfaces and conversational ones. But the growing library of Alexa skills and services like Houndify may mean that we’ll start seeing more voice-capable hardware and brands ditching traditional mobile applications in favor of voice ones. Conversational interfaces, whether out loud or through a device, will most likely replace a large part of the query and simple task-based work we do now.
When more brands gain the ability to communicate conversationally, and when visual interfaces become secondary or disappear altogether, voice will become a coveted spot for integrating branding. Voice suddenly has the potential to be the only branded content someone interacts with. Personality becomes essential — the more memorable, the better. Shifting the conversation from on a screen to inside someone’s home also necessitates a more intimate communication style, which, ironically, weird corporate Twitter has already perfected.
All this to say: if this weird brand voice trend has thrived when yelling into the void that is Twitter, imagine how it will mutate when presented with an environment that seems custom made for it.
We can already see some evidence of this shift in Apple’s employment of comedy writers to craft Siri’s comebacks and jokes. Once we evolve past the basic task-oriented way we use voice control now, we’ll open up the possibility for more ambient and passive communication methods. This is where I imagine weird corporate Twitter will find its next home.
I’m not sure I’m ready for the things in my home to start talking to me like my friends do. Weird corporate Twitter is entertaining for a lot of us, but part of the appeal is that it’s cordoned off to a small, predictable, space. We can leave any time we want. I have a hard time imagining a world in which my kitchen offers to play the corresponding mixtape when I open a box of Hamburger Helper. Or one where I find myself returning a toaster because I’m tired of it’s terrible puns, and the designers never planned an “opt out” path. I hope I never find myself installing software updates to phase out old slang.
The home of the future should be a reprieve from unwanted contact, and we need design that respects those boundaries. I hope that products that treat voice conversation as a privilege will end up being the successful ones.
If the real key to successful communication is in authenticity, I’d like to authentically request one thing of brands: do whatever you want on Twitter, but please remember that you’re not my bae.
Follow me on Twitter to find out what a bae is. Just kidding. I have no idea.
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