By Francesca Sobande, author of Big Brands Are Watching You: Marketing Social Justice and Digital Culture

Life can be loud. Many expressions point to different perceptions of online noise and the sounds of social media spaces, but a particularly popular concept that captures this is “moving in silence.” Often the expression describes an individual’s self-proclaimed decision to share less about themselves online. Yet before taking this hushed approach, they declare their intention in a public post. Although “moving in silence” tends to be associated with social media statements of people, the expression also concerns the online positioning of various branded companies.

In Big Brands Are Watching You, I analyze the ways that morality manifests and is struggled over in the marketplace, especially in the US and UK. This includes examining how brands use various online spaces and statements to navigate public expectations and demands of them. As part of this research on when, why, and how brands comment on certain issues of injustice and disregard others, I provide examples of when less use of social media can in fact result in more marketing attention for a brand. I noted how companies leverage concepts such as “digital disengagement” to establish themselves as more ethical and righteous than others.

Cutting through the noise made by competitors in their industry, some companies issue press releases and create online content about leaving certain sites—essentially, about “moving in silence.” At times, this involves brands poking fun at the conventions of influencer culture and attempting to distance themselves from a desire to amass online followers and subscribers. Yet, in the process of presenting themselves as “anti-social media” and disinterested in influencers and their tactics, brands often lean on lexicons that are particularly tied to trending topics, such as the haze of hashtags found on platforms including TikTok, X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram, and YouTube.

When considering these matters and the capitalist foundations of many brands, I think about the tired financial idiom “money talks, wealth whispers.” Some brands’ statements about deciding to say less online may symbolize an engineering of their exclusivity, reflecting brands’ confidence in their capital. Silence may be sanctified by brands who benefit from creating a buzz about them “logging off,” but brands retreating from certain online spaces may simply reflect their moneyed effort to create aspirational forms of intrigue and marketable ideas of (in)visibility.

Much like the ways that many mainstream notions of minimalism merely market expensive and so-called “quiet luxury” lifestyle products, the ways that certain brands are deemed as “moving in silence” may be symptomatic of commercial activity being reframed as humble, principled, and, even in some cases, somewhat spiritual.

Ultimately, by “logging off,” some brands may be moving in ways that involve circumnavigating calls for them to publicly speak up about issues of oppression. The more difficult it is to discern what a brand’s digital presence is, the harder it may be to impactfully demand that they say and do more in response to societal injustices. There are vital critiques of social media and there are meaningful forms of disengagement and anti-surveillance work by many people and organizations. However, such approaches should not be confused with the well-worn marketing strategies of brands that continue to amplify themselves by issuing statements about apparently saying less online.

While some brands may treat silence as golden and shout about their intentions to disconnect, others are compelled to post online comments and content quickly and frequently. Reflecting on the ways that different brands turn to (or away from) digital technology today, Big Brands Are Watching You contends with both online silences and statements in response to structural inequalities and systemic violences. Focusing on the numerous ways that brands watch people (watching them), I consider how the changing norms of digital technology, online communication, and consumer culture shape (in)actions related to social justice.