Corporations Want Love (and Free Marketing on Instagram)

Companies once asked only their employees to feign heartfelt devotion to their products. Now their customers are expected to do so too.

Toru Hanai / Reuters

Dining recently with friends, everything looked the way it always does. The menu boasted appealing but ordinary fare—antipasti and starters, wood-fired pizzas, freshly-made pastas, meaty mains. I noticed that a handful of the menu items were printed in red, and I asked the server why. “These are our signature dishes,” he explained. “They’re the ones that are most shared on social media.”

The food was fine, and the service was attentive. But the idea that I might order for the benefit of social-media sharing haunted the evening. Every time the staff checked in on us, I felt my gut tighten, expecting to be asked if we’d yet tweeted the sea scallops, a red item on our table.

Later I recognized that feeling in my gut. It was the unease usually associated with work, as opposed to leisure. It was the same tension displayed in certain scenes from Mike Judge’s 1999 film Office Space, like when Initech VP Bill Lumbergh asks Peter if he’s filed his TPS reports, or Chotchkie’s Bar & Grill manager Stan scolds Joanna for having insufficient “pieces of flair” on her uniform. Somehow, it was now my job to make good on the restaurant’s offerings, rather than the restaurant seeking to please—or even just to satisfy—me.

Office Space is best remembered for lampooning soul-crushing, gray-cubicled, white-collar jobs, with their pointless managerial demands and constant mistreatments. But the film also offers a second critique of work: the low-wage service job, which turns out to have much in common with office work. Joanna’s failure to voluntarily don supplementary flair parallels Peter’s resistance to administrivia. Even before the dot-com bubble had burst, and long before the sharing economy made odd jobs a part of the white-collar tech sector, Office Space already showed that every job was absurd and alienating in basically the same way.

Today, a decade and a half after the film’s release, both office work and service work exert even more affective demands on workers. Knowledge workers are expected to “love what they do,” and subsequently to invest as many of their waking hours as possible in the cause. That’s a feature absent from Office Space, parts of whose plot revolve around the need to get to and be in Initech’s office to get work done. Meanwhile, service work has been reframed as liberating and gig workers have been recast as micro-entrepreneurs in charge of their own schedules and dreams.

Once work became a function of the individual mind, hand, and soul rather than the time and effort leased by a company for its ends, all labor—from waiting tables to pushing papers—became a process of singular creativity. Hence the rise of “handmade” and “artisanal” goods and services as supposed salves for the faceless bureaucracy of corporate sameness. Today, everything is positioned as if it’s one-of-a-kind and unique, even when it’s really just a commodity. Mobile apps that use the same widgets as every other are just as likely to be called “handcrafted” as the menus offering the same pork belly tacos as the ones at every other gastropub.

It’s a different world than that of Office Space, where jobs require the compliant delivery of services. The hip waiter of the 1990s telegraphed affectivity by dressing quirkily and kneeling down at the front of the table to insinuate him or herself into the customer’s peer group—“How’s everybody doing?” Whether office or service work, jobs were all about simulating the worker’s emotional investment in a product incapable of bearing real emotional output. It was an inevitability of faceless corporate life: In the franchised restaurant and the faceless cubicle farm, management must manufacture a synthetic culture to replace the lost organic one.

Today the reverse is true. The worker’s simulated affect is still required, but it takes a back seat to the product’s simulated affect—whether that product is an app or an appetizer. Startup employees are expected to be devoted to their company’s products and services, but the company’s users are increasingly forced to endure this passion as a feature of the service: The earnest appeals in emailed updates for Kickstarters doomed to failure; the emoji-endeared log-in slogans in corporate groupware like Slack and Asana; the app entrepreneurs who are “so excited to share what they’ve been up to.” And now, apparently, in restaurant menus that make sure you know which plates you’re expected to Instagram when they arrive.

This is the opposite of the soulless work represented by Initech and Chotchkie’s, where nobody—not the employees, the bosses, nor the customers—had any idea what they were doing or why. Even if my waiter’s quip about “social media dishes” was meant only to indicate certain dishes’ popularity, it reveals that popularity is now indistinguishable from the labor of sharing. Where once work was soulless, now it has become soulful. So soulful, in fact, that it feels mawkish. Now it’s the customer who might hesitate to don more than the minimum pieces of flair, rather than the worker.

In Office Space, IT work and bar-grill fare sit in the background, commoditized. As Joanna’s boss Stan explains when he admonishes her for her lackluster flair, “People can get a cheeseburger anywhere. They come to Chotchkie’s for the environment and the attitude. That’s what flair’s about. It’s about fun.” The food is ordinary, so the dining experience is shaped by the supposedly eccentric hip waiter. But when one enters a sit-down casual restaurant today, the food is presented as unique, while the waiters are mere vessels to allow one to appreciate it with the appropriate breathlessness. “Have you ever dined with us before?” asks today’s waiter, before expounding upon every menu item (most of which are revealed to be the same locally-sourced fare prepared in the same way as every other restaurant). One’s job is not to have fun, but to properly appreciate the supposedly bespoke delights for which one is about to pay a premium. And then to like it on Facebook.

Where once manufactured affect was imposed primarily on the worker, now it is imposed on the consumer. To buy and use things today is to suffer a constant barrage of supposedly ardent devotion on the part of its creator. Have you rated the app yet? Tasted the burrata? Don’t you want to share your purchase on social media? We’re really proud of our work—here’s a photo of the team!—and we want you to love it, really love it. It’s the final victory of pieces of flair: Now all must don them, constantly. Every app, every service, every product, every starter, every cocktail has become a little bauble that must be worshipped even despite its utter ordinariness.

Office Space ends improbably. It’s a comedy, after all, made by the creator of Beavis and Butthead. Peter and his compatriots hack Initech’s accounts but accidentally embezzle far more than they intended. At the last minute they are saved by an office fire set by a minor character. Joanna gets fired, and Peter goes to work in construction, an earnest profession where handcrafted products really are crafted by hand.

A year after the film’s release, the tech economy crashed. Office work became less stable while simultaneously requiring more of workers’ time and more of their emotional commitment. Service work became more precarious while somehow reframing that precariousness as worker flexibility.

What’s different now is the transfer of affective labor from the worker to the consumer. It’s a new and unfamiliar kind of hyperemployment: In addition to furnishing money and personal data, consumers are also asked to hand over their devotion—in advance, and to everyone in equal measure. Far beyond mere enjoyment or satisfaction, products and services now demand that their customers bear the flair of their constant celebration, with positive reviews and social-media pronouncements. Workers have long been exhausted with the ever-increasing and arbitrary demands of their employers. Now everyone else is too, even when they’re paying rather than being paid.