Hypercasual: when the web gets a little too friendly

Moo.com's Yay! sticker, used under CC license from Richard MorossYou’ve probably noticed it over the years; I certainly have. You’ve seen the companies who are way too friendly on the web. You click on their website and it’s stuffed with messages like “Yay!” and “w00t!” You look at their Twitter accounts and they’re asking what crazy capers everyone got up to this weekend. On Facebook, it’s all “why not look at this funny cat video? LOL!”

It’s everywhere, and it drives me crazy.

Katy Lindemann, a friend of mine who’s a communications strategist in London, made an interesting point about the growth of this approach in a recent blogpost. Too often, she says, companies simply decide to let their standards slide when it comes to social media, opting to drop their usual voice for one that I call hypercasual.

She refers to one example noticed by U.K. developer Phil Gyford. He spotted that his bank, Smile.co.uk was polling web users on a topic that felt oddly casual.

“Smile.co.uk, I know you want to be friendly,” he said. “But is a poll on the front page about your favourite A-Team character appropriate for a bank?”

I’m not entirely sure when this extremely casual voice started being used by companies online, but I remember when it seemed novel: back when Flickr (s yhoo) launched, for example, using a playful, personal voice that seemed like a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t pretending to be a person, exactly, but it had a personality. In Britain, we had Innocent Drinks, a company that has spent the last decade making a virtue of its cute copywriting.

Through the Web 2.0 boom, the friendly voice was rapidly copied. In fact, it became synonymous with social media presence — even though it was rarely done as well as those who led the way. Now it feels as if everything is trying to be friendly, from fashion outlets to banks to your kid’s school.

But it doesn’t always work. As Lindemann puts it, it’s the result of people getting their “content strategy” wrong:

It’s partly the Innocentification of cutesy, zany copy where it’s just not plausible or appropriate for the brand… But it’s also suggestive of a complete lack of content strategy… Of not really understanding what kind of relationship the people they’re trying to engage want to have with their brand. Whether they want a brand to be useful, helpful and deliver against their brand promise – or whether they want a brand to be their mate.

The question of tone is important because sometimes the hypercasual approach ends up not simply being inappropriate, but downright offensive. Remember when Kenneth Cole made an inappropriate joke during the Egyptian uprising? Or when Microsoft (s msft) urged people to buy Amy Winehouse downloads just hours after the singer was found dead? There are dozens of examples of companies getting it wrong in social media.

And while some of these problems are individual failings — giving the wrong person the ability to post messages on your company’s behalf, or posting to a company account when they mean to post to a personal one — they are all, on a broader scale, the result of trying to take a hypercasual approach.

The discussion reminded me of a recent New York Times (s nyt) piece arguing that the late novelist David Foster Wallace was really the man to blame for over-casual. In the article, writer Maud Newton argues that Wallace’s popularity was emblematic of the language that evolved from the web; the equivocations, the postmodern inflections of IIRC and IMHO.

While the argument itself is a little tricky — I’m not sure whether she’s suggesting that a large proportion of bloggers have actually read David Foster Wallace, or merely that he captured the voice of a generation — she is right to point out that his prose is full of the sort ofs and pretty muches that define hypercasual. He is, in some ways, its patron saint. From the article:

I suppose it made sense, when blogging was new, that there was some confusion about voice. Was a blog more like writing or more like speech? Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two. The “sort ofs” and “reallys” and “ums” and “you knows” that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon… It’s fascinating and dreadful in hindsight to realize how quickly these conventions took hold and how widely they spread.

When the hypercasual is used properly, it can be very powerful. Betfair, a British gambling website, started experimenting with a new Twitter voice earlier this year. The result was a riotous stream of consciousness, jokes about corporate life or tales of dogs and strippers. It was the manic, unbalanced voice of somebody on the verge of madness, trying to escape office life through the magic portal of Twitter. It was great.

So perhaps these clunky examples of the hypercasual voice — the A-Team polls and the bad taste jokes — are actually part of a strategy. It’s just a strategy that has gone wrong.

More likely, I suspect, they are merely evidence that many people companies confuse being friendly with being flippant. Trying to “do social” means trying to be friendly, which in turns means sounding like an ordinary person — and it’s very easy to imagine that the best way of sounding like an ordinary person is to simply let an ordinary person take over your Twitter account and do whatever comes to mind.

But thinking that hypercasual is synonymous with not trying is a terrible mistake. David Foster Wallace didn’t just write the first thing that came into his head; he agonized over the text. Flickr’s playfulness with words represents something of the company’s culture, even now that it’s part of Yahoo.

Lots of businesses want to be friendlier, but that doesn’t mean you can just slap up a few jokes and I’ll be your lifelong buddy. The truth is, I don’t want brands to tell me what they were doing this weekend or share funny video mashups with me. That’s what my real friends — what real people — are for.

Photograph of Yay! sticker from Moo used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user Richard Moross