It also allowed companies to behave like people. As their social-media posts were woven into people’s feeds between actual humans’ jokes, gripes, and celebrations, brands started talking with customers directly. They offered support right inside people’s favorite apps. They did favors, issued giveaways, and even raised money for the downtrodden. Brands became #brands.
In 2018, I wrote about my personal experiences with this new kind of brand behavior for The Atlantic, when Comcast sent me 10 pizzas after I dared them to on Twitter. By then, brands had developed distinctive, humanlike personalities online: Wendy’s cattiness countered Arby’s dorkiness, for example. Steak-umm had become a kind of social-media hero, using the persona of a Rust Belt underdog to opine on social and political topics of all stripes.
Back then, I warned against growing too comfortable with these newly seductive corporate relationships. The brands were not real human friends, but neither were they faceless corporations anymore. That ennui has deepened, and “Ugh, #brands” has become a more common sentiment among people who might previously have found them charming. Now Amazon’s social-media mutiny expresses the same disgust, but in a despicable corporate voice.
That’s apt, because Amazon might be the best standard-bearer for the concept of an Evil Corporation. Over the past quarter century, it has devoured online shopping, publishing, music, and more. It has muscled out businesses by reportedly using their sales data to develop cheaper, competing products of its own. (The company has said its employees are prohibited from doing this.) It has sold conspiratorial books and dangerous goods. It has driven its warehouse and delivery labor force to exhaustion to bring you inexpensive stuff slightly faster than everyone else. It has sold people always-on microphones and cameras for home surveillance, then offered the data spoils to law enforcement. It drew cities into outrageous, highest-bidder incentives for a second headquarters, then abandoned one of the winners anyway.
Given all the rest of its acts, isn’t it a little coy to gasp when the company talks nasty on Twitter?
As part of its aggressive campaign against its detractors, Amazon reportedly mustered an army of employee accounts on Twitter to parrot its talking points from the factory floor. This technique, which Amazon has used before, mirrors the 2016 and 2020 election disinformation campaigns. The messages are so confusing, at least one account created as a satire of Amazon’s swarm seems to have been mistaken for an authentic one. And Twitter has banned many similar, fake accounts. On the internet, even shitposting goes meta—and the press just gives it more oxygen.
No matter the outcome of the Alabama unionization effort, the implications of Amazon’s turn toward social-media hostility will reverberate longer and more broadly. Let’s hope it marks the beginning of the end of the #brands age. Consumers have affinities for branded products, but it was always a perversion for that fondness to evolve into empathy for the brand as a person. Corporate relations never should have entailed relationships; instead, companies are best held at the safe distance of impersonal transactions. Why not start to rebuild that skepticism today via Amazon’s new model for a company whose speech you sort of abhor, actually. How gross.