We all know that a corporation’s Twitter account is managed by a social-media worker (despite Denny’s claims on Twitter to be an “egg” rather than a social-media guru). Social media managers for corporate brands tend to be young people steeped in digital culture, who may be junior in status but are tasked with building a newly “hip” brand essence for the social media reading public. So does the frisson of reading these weird corporate tweets happen because we are rating the social-media manager’s performance on Twitter, like an Olympic judge holding up a score at the end of each tweet (and supplying important metrics to the brand at the same time)? Or does the Denny’s brand’s mewling Twitter intimacy make us feel paternal, bound to support and foster our corporate brand children as they speak to us through the web, learning our native medium?
That explanation doesn’t seem complete to me, though. I also feel a sinister intimation of power in these new corporate social-media voices. Denny’s the corporation has transformed itself through its tone into a hip, ageless kid basking in the approval of its many followers. And this may be the creepy core what makes me uncomfortable in the Denny’s voice: When brands speak anonymously and yet so intimately through the voices of unnamed social-media managers, we like them more than we can like any individual tweeter. On social media, the cute-voiced corporation is cuter than any person.
For us, there is a sociopathic freedom in knowing there is no individual behind the Twitter account. The corporation will not reach out for support in hard times the way an individual person on Twitter may. Laughing with it doesn’t trigger an existential fear that we might be relied on for support, sending vibes or crowdfunds during @dennysdiner’s darkest emotional hour.
But while our own motivations for liking corporate brands more than individual people on Twitter may signal a certain desire to shirk responsibility, the exploitative relation goes both ways. The corporation, while needing nothing emotional from us, still wants something: our attention, our loyalty, our love for its #brand, which it can by definition never return, either for us individually or for us as a class of persons. Corporations are not persons; they live above persons, with rights and profits superseding us. The most we can get from the brand is the minor personal branding thrill of retweeting a corporation’s particularly well-mixed on-meme tweet to show that we “get” both the meme and the corporation’s remix of it.
Is the sinisterness of the Denny’s Twitter presence, then, that even as we are laughing at a restaurant chain tweeting at us like a coy, meme-hashing kid, we are also aware that we are being manipulated by the witty teen’s fundamental opposite? That no individual person could garner the laughs, followers, and, most important, shareholder value for being coolly funny that a corporation can? Because regular users can amass faves and followers, but not typically the shareholder value in their personal brand that a corporation can.
That is, in speaking to us like an equal, Denny’s shows us how we can never be equals with a corporate brand, on Twitter as in life. In fact, just as corporations have become “persons” in law, they have also become “persons” on social media, bearing all the fruits of personhood while retaining all the massive advantages of being an entity that defies individual personhood. At the end of the day, @Dennysdiner is just a legal structuring entity housed somewhere in Delaware, formed to serve mediocre diner food in cities across America. And yet in spite of — or maybe even because of — this uncanny act of assuming personhood, we like it. Corporations can’t be lonely, but with their newfound “cute” voices they are becoming more popular than people.
To become popular and “cool,” brands have had to learn the very techniques we learned as resistant teens to deal with power: our sarcastic humor and our endlessly remixable memes. Corporate #weirdtwitter redeploys the memes we once used to signal our resistant identities to one other to make themselves seem like our sassy peers. In other words, Denny’s the corporation wants a seat at the table at the Denny’s where we used to go to meet and commune with other teens in all our midnight, underground, post-all-ages-show angst.