Corporate-branded hashtags may seem trivial, but they point to serious structural issues undermining some of our most important conversions. Rich Mason explains.
Yesterday, a few days on from the launch of our latest Future Work Centre report, I logged into Twitter to see the response. Had it begun to foster a broader, more imaginative thinking about the future of work, as we had hoped? Then I noticed something: in many of the tweets discussing our report was the hashtag #FutureOfWork, which was followed by a miniature Microsoft logo.
These days it’s common to see these little logos automatically accompanying Twitter hashtags. High profile social movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have them. Users don’t even need to input them as an emoji – Twitter appends it to the hashtag automatically.
And they can be paid for, if your pockets are deep enough. Most commonly, you can spot them around major product launches and movie releases; all part of a corporation or movie studio’s multimillion dollar advertising campaign. In this case, it seems, Microsoft have made a strategic decision to pay Twitter for association with the term ‘Future of Work’.
Fair enough, you might think. Social media platforms aren’t free to run, after all - they’ve got to have a business model. There’s nothing particularly new about advertising, or even in corporations laying claim to certain phases through trademarks (when I say “I’m Lovin’ It”, what do you think of?). And a hashtag is just a hashtag at the end of the day – what does it really matter?
Co-opting, commodification, control
However I argue this is more insidious than mere advertising. Fundamentally, unlike a traditional advertising campaign, this is simply not Microsoft’s content to buy, nor is it Twitter’s to sell.
The future of work debate is one of the most hotly discussed topics globally, and for good reason. It captures so many of the most pressing issues of our time: economic security, quality of life, the huge opportunities and risks of new tech, who will win, lose, and who gets to decide. Besides us here at the RSA Future Work Centre, think tanks, consultancies, academics, legislative and regulatory bodies around the world are working tirelessly in search of answers to these vital questions, igniting a vibrant public debate.
Search the #FutureOfWork hashtag (many hundreds of tweets per hour at the time of writing) and you’ll see people excitedly sharing blog posts, talks, videos of experimental new technology, along with their own commentary and opinions. All, at this moment, bearing Microsoft’s logo without the choice of the contributors (remember, these are not adverts placed around the tweets, but inserted automatically right into what the person has written); almost none of the content attributable in any way to Microsoft or Twitter.
So here we have two tech Giants who are, respectively, embellishing their reputation and receiving substantial sums of money by means of commodifying and co-opting an essential public debate, possibly altering or stymieing the discussion in pursuit of their narrow self-interest. Picture this for a moment: a packed Town Hall discussion for a pressing local issue, and a salesman walking around slapping a branded sticker on anyone who rises to speak.
This is not without consequence. For example, someone coming across a discussion for the first time may be put off from joining by a perceived association with a brand. A hashtag is sometimes not just a hashtag. It can be a gathering point for people to have a conversation, a place where new understanding emerges, and this should not be taken so lightly. One infamous example among many of what can happen when its not, a conversation between domestic abuse survivors around the hashtag #WhyIStayed was derailed by a blundering contribution by a pizza restaurant.
Most of us would probably agree that terms specific to, say, a movie release are probably fair game for advertising, but there is apparently no judge or standard at play in the social media realm. Compare the older example of trademarks: any attempt to trademark the term ‘Future of Work’ would be assessed by an accountable abiter, and surely rejected, being too widely used to be attributed to any one owner or source.
Which gets to the fundamental point beneath my hashtag gripe. The platforms created and run by social media Giants are not mere apps: they are public amenities and gathering places, a new kind of public sphere used by millions of us for both recreation and knowledge-sharing. Yet in the hands of their creators, vital decisions – such as what terms can be owned, by what right, and who gets to profit thereby – are kept from our view, without public oversight or recourse, invariably prioritising profit and narrow self-interest over public good.
Do we have a choice?
In the report I mentioned at the top of this blog, you can read our imagining of the Big Tech Economy, one possible future which might await us in 2035. In this future, the tech behemoths of Silicon Valley and Shenzhen wield enormous power over many facets of our lives, keeping public concerns and backlash in check via well-oiled PR operations. However as we also make clear in the report, we should consider our agency and not resign ourselves to any particular future outcome. So can we avoid our conversations being hijacked and appropriated for tech company profits?
We can, of course, just refrain from using Twitter. The problem is that there are currently few alternative spaces, so this option amounts to forsaking potentially invaluable conversations, at least until an alternative is on offer. A better response may be to use public pressure or regulatory intervention to change tech company behaviour. Activist campaigns such as Redecentralize are working on ways to challenge the unchecked power of tech Giants, including encouraging the development of genuine alternative spaces. And ‘Power in the New Economy’, a forthcoming major programme of work from the RSA’s Economy Team will examine concentrations of power in tech with a view towards policy intervention. This inquiry deserves all of our attention – the future of work conversation, and many others besides, are at stake.