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.