March 2, 2009
Skittles, Spreadability, and the question of social media authorship

[Note: this was originally written for and posted at]

A funny thing happened on my way to check out the new Skittles homepage-as-social-media-experiment that's been generating all sorts of attention over my twitter feed. I went to the homepage, and in my sleep deprived idiocy, entered today's date in their terms of service agreement instead of my birthdate.

And since Skittles decided to take my word for it that I was born today, it deemed me underage and thus not the appropriate audience for it's free-for-all social media aggregation scheme.

While it was indeed my own oversight that got me blocked from their page, the block speaks to the underlying problem with this stunt, which is that while the idea seems interesting, the execution and practical application might fall somewhat short of potential.

There is, of course, the technical side in which their terms didn't manage to catch that I'd entered an impossible birth date. But beyond that, there are other practical issues, such as the overlarge navigation console pointed out by Stan Schroeder at Mashable. Moreover, as Christopher Carfi astutely observes in his blog, with no way to regulate the signal/noise ratio, the site runs the risk of people loosing interest because of the sheer volume of content.

However, what interests me is that my mistake this morning presents a dilemma that has yet to be discussed in the first flush of interest and excitement over's new strategy. For all intents and purposes, in aggregating this content through their site, and thereby putting it under their terms of service, they are effectively taking content that is otherwise open to and created by the public -- what is essentially public discourse -- and branding it, then resetting the parameters for access.

What in one way appears to be a handing over of control to the consumers to discuss and use the brand as they wish, is in another way an assertion of a measure of ownership. Skittles owns the site and set the regulations and protocols of interaction there, but the site is composed of content created totally outside of those regulations, content created through social relations that did not agree to the boundaries that Skittles requires for its site. In other words, by asserting their right to not only aggregate, but then redefine the conditions through which the content can be viewed, Skittles is suggesting that they have some claim over the content by virtue of it being about them.

Of course, though this echoes of the notion of "fan labor," Skittles' incursion is fairly minor . After all, your content is still available openly elsewhere, and the terms Skittles has imposed on it seem to only be limited to age to prevent minors from open access to potentially objectionable content, which is a perfectly understandable -- if somewhat ironic -- concern. But it makes you think: in talking about Spreadable media, we had always been so focused on instances of individuals and communities appropriating and claiming ownership of the content of corporations for their own ends, but media spread is by nature multi-directional, so we can only expect that it would work in the other way as well. Is it different when companies appropriate content created by individuals for their own purposes?

And while this stunt certainly generated the attention it was looking for, is any of that sustainable? It is merely a flash of PR hand-waving or does Skittles actually have an idea of how they want to begin facilitating relationships between both the brand and its audience and between audience members through the brand? And more importantly, is this really the right step towards the kind of relationships they will want to cultivate?



I vote for a flash of PR hand-waving. This move is akin to brand capitulation - "we couldn't fashion a great digital experience with this domain, so let's borrow an idea from modernista instead."

On March 2, 2009 at 2:55 PM, Xiaochang Li Author Profile Page said:

Peter, I think you're (sadly) right about this. While it was certainly attention snatching, they seem to not have a clear goal in mind or any idea of what they hope to accomplish by getting this particular kind of attention. And there's something hilarious about creating a site with content that has to blocked from minors, considering the product. Seems like another instance of bandwagon jumping, much like when everyone decided they wanted a "viral" campaign.