Net Neutrality: To Rebrand or Not To Rebrand

Something interesting is happening on reddit that has the potential to impact the net neutrality debate. A California Congresswoman, Anna Eshoo, is running a contest on reddit to rebrand net neutrality. Here’s the video in which Congresswoman Eshoo outlines the task at hand, and here’s the primary thread where the contest is going on.

So let’s jump in. I have some preliminary thoughts. I spent some time writing about the pros and cons of using reddit for this sort of endeavor, but I worry that’s burying the lede (the writeup is tucked away at the close of this blog post). I’d like to focus instead on questioning Congresswoman Eshoo’s underlying assumption  that net neutrality is the concept that needs rebranding.

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Quick take: rapid cycling discourse and the state of popular debate

Part of this morning’s media feed was this article on detecting important things on the Internet (satire, of course). In it, Capitalization Practices, salacious slugs, sensationalism, and more are given their due in brief. It is not a revolutionary critique. It is, in fact, pretty passé. We have all already complained about clickbait, traced the history of clickbait, redefined clickbait, and told each other to shut up about complaining about clickbait. We conclude that there’s nothing new to see here.The conversation’s tired. The conversation’s done.

This seems to be the flow of a lot of contemporary populist criticism. Stage 1: Raise Concern. Stage 2: Interrogate Definition of Concern. Stage 3: Criticize Those Who Are Concerned (often noting that Nothing is New).

And then comes Stage 4, which is roughly Recede from Debate.

I harbor what I think are legitimate concerns about the rapidity of issue cycles and its effect on public memory, political and social discourse, and mechanisms of social control. In brief, if we allow our critique to be as thin, rapid-fire, and utterly predictable as it is today, we risk glossing over issues that deserve sustained, in-depth attention. In a world in which “thought pieces” about major events have to be online in less time than it takes to properly think and in which the success of publications and social clout of individuals is, in part, incumbent upon one’s ability to jump on the latest trend, we are encouraged to ask only the simple questions and shy away from less easily-digestible critiques. And since the world is a tremendously complex place, the reduction of ongoing issues to rapid-cycling soundbytes means that issues can continue, not even necessarily behind the scenes or obscured from view. In other words, an ADHD approach to what we, the public, espouse concern about degrades the quality of of our critique and the effectiveness of our complaints. 

This isn’t really about the death of long-form so much as it is about the half-life of a contemporary crisis. We’re constantly moving on to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing because we can (really because the existing publishing, technological, and psychological/social structures we’re embedded in converge to encourage this type of behavior). Those who demonstrate sustained concern, or else revisit existing arguments articulated to their satisfaction, are maligned for their continued boo-hooing and told that their interpretation of an issue is insufficiently original or otherwise not worthwhile. At times, there may be some truth to these assertions; after all, those engaging in the conversation later have had a bit more time to mull things over. Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate that this is the direction our discussions so often take.

How to fix this, I don’t know. One might even argue that I contribute to the problem through my work. Ironically, I must be brief as I’m working on a longer response to a different issue, something that I fear will remove itself from public view before I’ve got around to it. It’s certainly easier to complain about the state of things than to propose actionable solutions, and I’d like to make sure that any that I might outline are carefully conceived. So we’ll leave this here for now. Proposals welcome in the comments. 

“The Scourge of ‘Relatability'” and Social Media: A Quick Hypothesis

This is just a quick thought, based off of Rebecca Mead’s recent piece in the New Yorker on relatability. In it, she laments the contemporary use of the concept as a yardstick of artistic virtue (apparently Ira Glass recently criticized Shakespeare as being unrelatable, a fact that is so deliciously just so that I can’t begin to unpack it properly). From the concluding paragraph:

“To reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize–because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy–is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of ‘relatable.’ In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities.”

I too would hope that people look outside a work’s inherent relatability–familiarity–when judging its merit. I assume that my vantage point is slightly different than Mead’s, however, and I come down differently on the “scourge” that is this word. Allow me to contribute an entirely armchair analysis.

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An Actual Response to the Unskippable Pre-roll Ad

Have you seen this? It’s a little ditty slapped together by an agency in the states that’s designed, in part, to get people to ask you just that–no one straps a puppy to a bunch of wires and can say otherwise. Beyond the obvious sensationalist leanings, however, is a message from one ad agency to the wider ad and marketing community: we’re wasting our precious preroll time. Start being smarter about how you use it.

I’ve been asked by multiple people what I think of this thing. My answers have been non-committal and positive-ish. Literally, my answer to the friend who asked about this on Facebook was, “These people are correct, mostly. Or this statement is more true: they are correct for now.”

I recognize that the above is a classic copywriter move; say something that sounds smooth and clever but contains zero content. So I’m remedying that.

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The Uncanny Valley of Brand Tweets

There’s a concept familiar to tech nerds and fans of sci-fi called the Uncanny Valley. It posits that, as robots become increasingly human, individuals will feel increasingly empathetic towards them. People’s reactions will be more and more positive. There comes, however, a point at which the likeness becomes too close for comfort; the just-more-than-barely human entity becomes repulsive and terrifying and remains so until it is engineered to become indistinguishable from humans again. The dip in positive reception of robots (or other designed entities) that fall between almost human and totally human is the uncanny valley. Here, a graph from an academic paper by Karl F. MacDorman on the topic:

From MacDorman, K. F. (2005). Androids as an experimental apparatus: Why is there an uncanny valley and can we exploit it? CogSci-2005 Workshop: Toward Social Mechanisms of Android Science, 106-118.
From MacDorman, K. F. (2005). Androids as an experimental apparatus: Why is there an uncanny valley and can we exploit it? CogSci-2005 Workshop: Toward Social Mechanisms of Android Science, 106-118.

 

This concept is what springs to mind when reading Kate Losse’s excellent piece in the New Inquiry about #weirdtwitter being co-opted by brand twitter feeds. She starts off by pulling up Denny’s feed, which I’ll admit caught my eye recently. To be blunt, it’s on point. Here are a few examples:

Losse’s thesis, essentially, is that this type of casual, on-meme tone traverses traditionally acceptable brand voice and transgresses a niche realm of digital communication. In doing so, a brand stands to yield significant positive feedback (as we’re unaccustomed to hearing brands in this way) while becoming, in Losse’s words, “cuter than any person” in its ageless hip-ness. Her concerns center primarily around power, resistance, and intimacy. Through conversing this way online, brands hedge in on the social capital of individuals and assert the fundamentally uneven power dynamic between corporations and consumers. In concluding, Losse writes:

“It isn’t enough for Denny’s to own the diners, it wants in on our alienation from power, capital, and adulthood too. While we giggle at corporate #weirdtwitter tweets, the corporate invulnerability that makes them easy to follow is also what makes their assumption of a human, familiar voice feel, despite our laughter and faves, cold and a bit pathological. Denny’s too wants to belong.”

While I primarily agree with Losse’s analysis, I think that this can more profitably be analyzed from a far simpler angle, namely the quest for brands to become more human.

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Side Notes: Napkin Backs and Connected Life 2014

When I’m not writing about the Internet here or writing about the Internet for school, I’m working on creative projects and coming up with ideas for ads. Here’s a bit on two things I’ve been working on lately, with links to check them out.

 

Napkin Backs

I’ve come up with a bunch of ideas for brands that fit on the back of a napkin. Each has a blurb and strategic breakdown provided in the caption, but I held myself to the requirement that the meat of the concept needed to fit in the napkin-allotted space. You can check out the collection here: http://napkinbacks.tumblr.com/

 

Connected Life 2014

I’m on the Marketing, PR and Web team for Connected Life 2014, the first iteration of a student-run conference for emerging Internet research. It’s being held at the University of Oxford on June 12th, 2014. Registration is open, and we’re still accepting submissions for student presenters. Learn more here: http://connectedlife.oii.ox.ac.uk/

Articulating the Need: Where Identity Marketing Falls Flat

 

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Image from http://uk.skullcandy.com/women.

“Products for women should be engineered, designed, colored, cushioned, and patterned to actually fit women and what we want; our music, our movies, and every sound.” This is the statement, smilingly recited by three women over a jingly, tambourine-laden indie rock backdrop, that surrounds SkullCandy’s launch of “headphones fine tuned for women.” And by fine-tuned, they don’t just mean color-coordinated and resized for comfort: they mean scientifically engineered to cater to differences in women’s hearing. Oh rly?

I take issue with a number of things here. The first is somewhat low-hanging fruit that, given past highly-publicized kerfuffles, one might think companies would avoid; the manufacture of products for the finer sex when use and enjoyment of said products is not actually dependent on gender. I had not realized I needed to coordinate my chromosomes with my choice of headphone or that the androgynous set I’m currently rocking isn’t adequately serving the “cleaner bass and very natural sounding vocals that… ladies prefer.” Thank goodness someone’s got my lady-like auditory predispositions in mind!

But diatribe be damned; I’m, for better or for worse, very used to sexism-masquerading-as-gender-catering in marketing campaigns. I won’t add to the slew of articles bemoaning this phenomenon. Instead, I’ve got a much more specific bone to pick.

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Image from http://uk.skullcandy.com/women

Full disclosure: I’m an ad woman through and through. I watch commercials on my computer and trawl the net for neat print ads and interesting interactive executions. I’ve encountered my fair share of aggressively anti-female advertising that Skullcandy doesn’t begin (and wouldn’t want) to hold a candle to, as well as insipid, veiled appeals to femininity that some might argue more insidiously reinforce notions of gender divides. Despite my transient residence in the ivory tower, my stance on these sorts of things is less ideological and more pragmatic. Segmenting a market and defining a product’s target audience in part by gender is, in my book, not so objectionable. I don’t think marketing to women is bad or wrong, nor do I believe that explicitly labeling things as “women’s” products is inherently problematic. Advertising is driven on emotions and fulfillment of desires and needs; one’s portfolio of wants can be impacted by gender or sex. Sometimes, appealing to that angle is the smart path to take.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to frame and phrase advertising. Exceptional production values aside, I think Skullcandy’s missing the mark. They’re closeso closeto knocking this thing out of the park, but there’s a tactical judgment they’ve made that has the potential to unravel the campaign altogether. What I’m referencing is the umbrella-strategy that undergirds the flowery patterns, exhortations to “#RAISEHELL,” and website callouts that read “you know you’re a dime”: identity marketing that explicitly articulates perceived beliefs of the target audience and, in doing so, reflects imagined needs and stances that may not align with what the target actually believes or wants. 

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