Annotate Everything

The implications of attaching digital reviews to real world objects

Are you ready to get a warning from the Center for Science in the Public Interest about the evils of high fructose corn syrup every time you buy a Coke? Would you like to share your thoughts on the anti-feminist subtext of Computer Engineer Barbie with anyone who picks up the doll? For years, we’ve mostly confined political discourse to static, insular venues like the university, the coffee shop, and the Web. But now, thanks to a new app called Stickybits, we can have our say in truly vital venues, like the toy aisle at Wal-Mart.

To use Stickybits, you need an iPhone or a phone running Google Android. Once you download the app, you can start scanning barcodes or QR codes and attaching files to them—photos, video, text, music, etc. Then, when other Stickybits users scan the same code, they can see what you’ve attached. Stickybits sells packs of vinyl stickers printed with unique barcodes via Amazon, and you can also download free barcodes directly from the Stickybits website and print them out on your printer. In addition, the app works with any barcode that appears on a commercial product.

When you use one of the stickers that Stickybits provides, your audience is limited to whoever else scans that unique code. But a barcode that appears on a 20 oz. bottle of Coke isn’t unique—it appears on millions of other 20 oz. bottles of Coke. Scan the one sitting in your refrigerator, and your message will be instantly available to everyone else in the world who has a bottle of Coke with that barcode on it and cares to scan it.

Granted, there’s this thing called the Web that provides similar functionality. But if you only want to reach Coke drinkers with your message, and at the precise moment when they’re buying or drinking Coke, Stickybits offers a better way to do it. Or at least it will if it can convince people to add Coke bottles to their daily media diet.

But if you think bottled water wastes precious resources or you’d like to make a case for the economic virtues of sweatshop labor, why wait until the audience arrives? There’s valuable real estate to claim on Snickers bars, Wheaties boxes, and countless other products that reach much larger audiences than most traditional media outlets—and it doesn’t cost a dime.

Activists on both sides of the political spectrum insist that we’re too detached from the products we consume, the companies we patronize, the practices and policies we enable, and that if we only knew more, we’d act differently. Now, every pair of distressed jeans is a potential talking point, a medium that can transmit graphic photos of what happens to the lungs of the textile workers who do the distressing. Now, thirsty Republicans can be easily alerted when they’re drinking across party lines. In short, the network of objects that Stickybits may foster has the potential to be an incredibly subversive and illuminating place.

Or at least a really great place to get coupons. The flipside to the PR headaches that Stickybits will inevitably create is that it’s not just activists, culture jammers, customers with grudges, and enterprising poets determined to get their haikus about laundry detergent in front of a wider audience who’d love to target consumers via the specific products they use, but brands and marketers themselves. Pepsi can turn every Coke can into an advertisement for Pepsi. Eminem’s record label can uses Mariah Carey’s CDs to distribute the former’s latest diss track of the latter.

“Social media has taught brands to let go,” says Stickybits co-founder Seth Goldstein. “In a world of Twitter they realize that they can’t control the debate. They’re no longer saying, ‘Hey, shut this down because people might say bad things.’ They’re saying, ‘How can I get involved early so I can guide the conversation before too many people show up?’”

In the end, however, there’s not much companies can do to forestall the rise of Stickybits or other similar applications. While it may feel as if Stickybits is some kind of digital parasite that sinks its teeth into unwitting hosts, the bits it “attaches” to products don’t really get attached to them. “All we’re doing is using barcodes as pointers to a place in the cloud,” Goldstein says. When you scan one with your smartphone, Stickybits knows to go a database field it has associated with that code and retrieve the content that’s been stored there.

According to Goldstein, Stickybits is planning to offer brands some ability to manage the content that gets linked to their products—when you scan that bottle of Coke, for example, expect to see official Coke content first.

The more open and unregulated the Stickybits universe is allowed to remain, however, the more useful it will be. To this end, the unique barcodes that Stickybits provides may end up offering its most compelling content in the long run. Want to know if that new restaurant that you just passed is any good without having to search for it on Yelp? Just scan the sticker someone has posted on the front door and see what other people are saying about it.

Wondering if your waitress really is the worst waitress on earth, or if it’s just you? Check the underside of your table—maybe her previous customer left a review.

Too much information? What applications like Stickybits show is that we’re just getting started. There’s still a hugely unfulfilled demand for more immediacy, more context, more thoroughly annotated bottles of our favorite soft drinks.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Old Mexican||

    To use Stickybits, you need an iPhone or a phone running Google Android.

    Since I don't have them nor plan to buy them . . . ho-hum.

  • Max||

    You losertarians are a fucking hoot. You calim to love small government and personal freedom, and you live in a country with the biggest fucking government-rin prison system outside of China. You have the worst health care system in the western world and the health care outcomes to prove. You are so fucked that you have raised the whole idea of being fucked to cosmic levels. You haven`t got a fucking clue about anything, and you`re so eager to share your stupid ideology with others. I mean, fuck!

  • Tman||

    Welp, you convinced me. Obviously I should surrender my rights and income to progressives because they know everything and only have my best interest in mind.

    I mean, fuck!

  • freedomonthetundra||

    libertarians are obviously responsible for the state of the prison system in this country., no we are not. the rest of what you wrote was expletive filled nonsense. i love me some expletives but only when they are woven into coherent speech. you keep coming and reading so some part of you is interested. perhaps you just lack the mental capacity to understand these points of view...or probably any points of view for that matter.

  • ||

    Edward is getting more apoplectic by the day. I actually laugh out loud when I read his rants. This is great stuff.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    Whoa, I had no idea libertarians had been running the country for the last century. Thanks for opening my eyes, Max. Fuck, we've really fucked the country up.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    Also, as fucked as our health care system is, you would have to be (literally) stupid to say the US has the worst health care system in the world.

  • ||

    Worst, best, don't bother me with your bourgeois superlativism.

    What's really funny is to attack libertarians for a large prison population in the U.S. If you were to ask a person with brain damage what a libertarian was, almost certainly the answer would be (not in these words) "A person who opposes criminalizing consensual crimes." In other words, a libertarian government would immediately free anyone in prison for most, if not all, consensual crimes. Bet that's at least half of our prison population right there.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    My sentiments exactly. So the question is, what kind of brain damage causes someone to come to a libertarian forum and implicitly blame libertarianism for the US' large prison population?

  • ||

    It's not brain damage. It's demonization. You and me, The Art? We're like the Jews. . .circa 1940, Nazi Germany. There, I said it! Libertarians are the new hated class! Go ahead, round us up! Fuck!

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    Even though it'll never come to that*, I have picked up a bit of that irrational resentment for libertarians that frankly resembles irrational resentment for the Jews.

    *Famous last words?

  • ||

    Sigh. Figures that I'd end up in a libertarian concentration camp. Maybe they'll give the surviving libertarians their own country, though, out of guilt and stuff. Costa Rica would be nice.

  • ||

    Sigh. Is it time for the Stone Burners yet, Pro'L Dib?

  • ||

    Only when I'm locked up for being a libertarian.

    Give it a year or two.

  • ||

    I'll be right there with you. Unless I'm impressed into some sort of MedicalCorpse. I'll try and get you released on medical grounds.

  • strat||

    Doubly so, because Libertarians are apparently running everything. It's not just "the Jews" anymore!

    I suddenly feel accomplished.

  • Warty||

    Is Edward some kind of Eurofag cockholster or something?

  • ||

    Warty, please explain what a Eurofag cockholster is. Don't spare any detail.

  • Warty||

    Imagine yourself if your greasy forebears had stayed in Wopland, dude.

    By the way, what's your current cockholstering personal record?

  • ||


  • Warty||

    It makes me very, very happy that the 8th GIS result for "cockholster" is John McCain.

  • Max||

    Only losertarian retards respond to me. It's a win-win.

  • Warty||

    Responding to you is a win? Being a losertarian retard is a win? I don't understand, Edward. Maybe you should try taking some of those dicks out of your mouth.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    Max makes all sorts of weird "calim"s.

  • PIRS||

    Please explain why you keep posting here if you hate us so much. What are you hoping to acomplish?

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    I wouldn't bother. By his own admission he's either a troll, an imbecile or both.

  • ||

    Trollbecile? Imbecitroll?

  • ||

    Fucking Max likes to fucking suck off goats.

  • ||

    Hmmm, is the person in the photo an inmate of Fiorina 'Fury' 161?

    Does he have "Double Y" Chromosome pattern?

    85, is that you?

  • ||

    You know who directed that, I hope. Hint: he also directed Se7en and Fight Club.

  • ||

    David Fincher. And no, Epi-spadias, I did not have to GIS it.

  • ||

    He tried for years to bring Rendezvous with Rama to the screen, but ultimately failed, unfortunately. He's one of the few people that might actually be able to pull it off.

  • ||

    I hope he does succeed and keeps Morgan Freeman in it. I loved that book!

  • Warty||

    Hitman was a pretty fun game back in the day.

  • Tman||

    Hitman: Blood Money was amazing. The mission in the Opera House could be executed without firing a single shot and was quite beautiful to behold.

    Hoping they make a good one for the PS3.

    /game nerd

  • ||

    I want to invest in this company.

  • anarch||

    [citation needed]

  • seattle plumber||

    yup need a citation before i believe this crock

  • PIRS||

    "about the evils of high fructose corn syrup every time you buy a Coke?"

    I buy Coke and Pepsi from Mexico because I prefer the taste of actual sugar.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    Cane sugar FTW.

  • ||

    That's for sure. I occasionally pick up bottles of the Mexican Coke at Fresh Market. I also had some in Malaysia. That corn lobby must be pretty powerful to keep Sugar Coke from us.

  • iamtheeviltwin||

    One of my guilty pleasures when I am in Mexico for a business trip is the sugar sweetened Coke from a glass bottle that you can get from almost every restaurant or sidewalk stand.

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    Biggest prison system? What about are giant military presence, massive debt, and massive currency swindle, global surveillance? You can strap on a plastic explosive vest and blow up a few Blackwater contractors or... You can join the losertarians and tea-baggers and unite with men of reason against the mongrel hordes of slobbering statist tyranny. I mean like fuck.

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    Activists on both sides of the political spectrum insist that we’re too detached from the products we consume, the companies we patronize.

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