Originally published on medium.com on October 18, 2016.
“Has my Explore feed been gentrified?”
[Aria Dean, “Poor Meme, Rich Meme” , Real Life Mag, 2016.]
“In this age where the very idea of the public is dissolving as we speak, we are all expected to be entrepreneurs of our own bodies. Expected to become businesses.”
[Lester Spence, “If Tolkien were alive he’d be a hustler”, 2011]
Good tweets copy, great tweets steal
If we haul Kate Losse’s analysis of how absurdist twitter comedy (“weird twitter”) and corporate social media presence commingle in a phenomenon she calls “Weird Corporate Twitter” to present day, we might find that little has changed. The relationship between advertising and social media has become distended. Since 2014, twitter has only grown in importance as a site of #content generation, information dissemination — both frivolous and for organizing projects — and one of the most innovative topographies for internet humor.
Social media accounts for (particularly, fast food) companies, are deeply invested in developing a “voice,” whether or not they actively engage in memes. @Whataburger frequently uses “I” statements (which actually creates a strangely disassociated dynamic between the restaurant and twitter account), that much simpler to retweet when you agree. @Arbys (the official account) uses sandwich boxes, condiments, and other menu items in pop culture-relevant origami and craft displays. @DennysDiner, the main object of Losse’s analysis, remains more aware of twitter trends than most of my friends. With every new meme, I imagine Denny’s has a crack team ready to disassemble and repurpose it as a marketing tool. The Diner retains the remixing of memes, offering followers the pleasure of recognition or getting the reference, and morose ruminations on life that prompt followers to ask the restaurant if it’s ok.
@Nihilist_Arbys emerged in January 2015 as a response to fast food and restaurant chains’ use of twitter. Established by musician, blogger, and copywriter Brendan Kellyy, the twitter account takes a simple form: a morbid, but deadpan, quip about the lack of meaning or grim prospects for humanity/ earth followed by “Enjoy Arby’s” or some variation. The account seems like the internet’s natural response to corporate infestations of social media. It also turns on the premise of advertising. Everything around the slogan, prompting you to “Eat Arby’s” — ranging from blunt nihilism to fatalistic poetry — is just dressing. It bares both the impotence of advertising’s promise and the crude arrangement of most fast food and restaurant chains’ use of twitter.
No honor among memes
These corporate twitter accounts, like IHOP, Whataburger, and Denny’s, have a wide reach, frequently achieving thousands of retweets. Trying to identify the factors of success in corporate twitter, Losse cites a “sociopathic freedom” that comes from seeing corporations engage trending topics and “alienation” from contemporary life like a clever teen or millennial might.
But not all of us think it’s cute. The remixing of memes haven’t become less creative, but their circulation is as stale as it is dependable. Shallow examination reveals even the funniest post as an ad, a ploy for your (and your stomach’s) attention. Corporate memes must always contort themselves to justify their presence on our timelines, masking the promotion behind borrowed comedic scaffolding.
It’s not just, as Laur M. Jackson points out, the “process of popularity” that must smooth the “unique, inventive” edges of the memetic object, polished into another adornment. Or that any meme that balloons into the stratosphere of mainstream coverage eventually pops under pressure. In corporate twitter, the remixing is telegraphed, viral humor evacuated of specificity and the personal[ity]. Stuffed and mounted in the living room for our admiration, the poses are always the same; for Denny’s it’s eggs and pancakes, for Whataburger a cheeseburger, and we are never surprised.
There are legitimate reasons to recoil at corporate twitter’s attempts at relevance, especially when they mark the final frontier of online appropriation of Black vernacular and Black cool. Just a few months after “Weird Corporate Twitter” was published, Pia Glenn critiqued IHOP and other companies for donning AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) as marketing strategies without context or accountability. Glenn argues that IHOP’s tweeting practices fashion Black culture as “disposable,” reduced to a tool for a “clever tweet.” The circulation of Blackness on the internet is something that has been covered beyond my capabilities by Laur M. Jacksonand Aria Dean; their analyses teach us to read how memes and appropriation make manifest the ways Blackness becomes currency online.
All Natural 100% Grass Fed non-GMO Memes
But even the less blatantly colonial corporate twitter is a “cringeworthy affair”that “bucks anything like the kind of in-group “it me” commonality of memes” and make them (nearly) endlessly versatile and shareable. It is a kind of “parasitism” that seeks to evade exposure by being more relevant, more up-to-date, more sheep’s clothing. As memes spiral into the hands of publications and social media interns, they begin to surrender form. Too much fondling dulls them down. Each iteration made for mass appeal is more sanitized, less full of potential for subversion or controversy. Efforts to make a joke palatable to all leave us with something bland and tasteless.
Perhaps we’re looking for authenticity in fallow ground. If corporate appropriation arrives with dependable frequency, it’s folly to hold on to objects as sacred at all. As Dean argues:
“The labor of online content production is done with hopes of an audience in mind; memes are created for the very purpose of virality and, by extension, appropriation. Memes move in cycles of production, appropriation, consumption, and reappropriation that render any idea of a pre-existing authentic collective being hard to pin down.”
On the internet, nothing is sacred/everything is shared. And if we see defilement, we should check our fingers.
@Nihilist_Arbys gazes into the abyss of social media advertising
This is why a parody of fast food twitter is the perfect analogy. (Well, almost. Dammit, why is someone just squandering @TacoHell). Though @Nihilist_Arbys could theoretically substitute any restaurant, it’s fittingly attached to one that purports to sell us Brisket that looks like pre-packaged lunch meat.
Arby’s, it seems, isn’t really trying. And @Nihilist_Arbys “taps[s] into the emotional state” of the kind of customers the sandwich peddler must attract. But we could also call it the “emotional state” that underlies all fast food advertising, and social media strategies that taste like Taco Bell “beef”.
If a good ad creates a need or vacancy in consumers and then offers the solution, Arby’s subverts this trend. There is indeed a vacancy (or an abyss), but @Nihilist_Arbys never promises that it can be filled. Eating Arby’s becomes ancillary, ironic, just an option.
What happens when Nihilist Arby’s becomes a meme? The account is almost repetitive in its creative and reiterated fatalism, referencing twitter trends only insofar as they reinforce that everything is meaningless and we’re all going to die [alone]. Users have taken it further, attaching “Enjoy Arby’s” to bleak or depressing statements (often timely) like a smirk, the punctuation of ironic detachment. @Nihilist_Arbys becomes, not just the next Denny’s, but beyond it.
What happens when @Nihilist_Arbys becomes more recognizable or distinctive as promotion than Arby’s, the restaurant? Within months, the parody account was deemed a success by AdWeek whose coverage was explicit in its angle: what can marketers learn from it? The fact is even if you’re tweeting Nietzschean verses while eating Arby’s, you’re still eating their food.
That both of these are true reveals how discombobulated we become distinguishing between an account that is parody/commentary and one that becomes a brand. The parody reveals itself as a brand, just as displaying one’s awareness of the parody, being in on the joke, emerges as coinage of internet cool for one’s own brand.
Everyone is selling something
This personalizing of corporate social media accounts should be seen as inextricable from the legal humanization of corporations. Corporations have become amorphous beings — both single entities that can donate to political campaigns and collections of cogs that can each be discarded if they threaten the whole. (Indeed, the image of the lowly intern firing off tweets with little-to-no oversight has saved many a company from the guillotine of public outrage after poorly-worded, poorly-timed, or otherwise problematic tweets.) And this melding is not without casualties.
Wendy Brown’s analysis of neoliberalism, and Citizen’s United, specifically, reveals how the “terms and practices of democracy” become economized. Speech is presented as a “capital right, functioning largely to advance the position of its bearer,” and this extends to “social media “followers,” “likes,” and “retweets.” At the level of the discrete and the virtual, the “neoliberal turn” expands beyond the political to twist the personal; every tweet is a press release.
In the “online attention economy,” each social media blast is a brand calculated move. Every statement an advertisement for the business of me. And the intermingling between the social and the professional is increasingly past our ability to delimit. Companies like Buffer capitalize on the importance of social media engagement and “social media training” is now a legitimate industry. LinkedIn was the harbinger, but with Workplace, Facebook has entered the sphere of (explicitly) professional social media. Already my work-related research seeps into the specially-catered ads I see off-the-clock. The lines blur.
the human becomes business/the business becomes human
On October 4th, 2016 @Nihilist_Arbys announced that it is shamelessly selling merchandise. It’s hard to cast blame though, the transition from capital in the internet’s marketplace of attention to capital that carries non-virtual value (what you can buy food and housing with) is far from seamless, and even nihilists need to profit. @Nihilist_Arbys is more popular and recognizable than ever. Even nihilism, it seems, can sell sandwiches, and maybe shirts too. If the concept of renouncing advertising can be repurposed then so can anything. The account frames selling-out as on-brand, but it also signals the alignment of the satirical twitter account as an identifiable brand. Maybe we were too busy looking at what happens when corporate goes twitter, we missed what happens when twitter goes corporate.