For a few fleeting hours on Thursday, the best social media site was the customer service chat on the craft store Michaels’ website. After a viral tweet drew attention to the site’s chat function, Twitter users flocked there, flooding the platform with conversation. Anyone could anonymously post questions and respond to other users’ questions; each response opened a one-on-one chat.
Predictably, the anonymity invited chaos. Some posters seized the opportunity to troll—there were various iterations of “I would like to speak to Michael” or “I am Michael, ask me anything”—or to promote their own Instagram, Twitter, OnlyFans, or YouTube handles. But others seemed genuinely invested in making connections with other users. There were posts encouraging people to stay positive—“You are beautiful & valuable. Thank you for being on this earth”—and confessional posts looking for solidarity, like one from a person who wanted to break up with a live-in boyfriend but hadn’t yet saved up enough money to move out.
In a social media ecosystem now ruled by influencers leveraging their “personal brand,” it was a novelty to chat with strangers on the website of a company few of us actually shop at. (Nonetheless, many took to calling themselves “Michaelsheads.”) But there are always dangers to anonymity—as we’ve seen on sites like 4chan, insidious ideas can profligate, especially when sites have little to no oversight. Moderation quickly became a problem on Michaels, too, as thousands of messages flooded the chat; some posted graphic messages about murder or suicide. As the novelty of Michaels chat wore off, I began wondering why the store had a chat feature in the first place, and what might happen to it as it faced this major challenge in content moderation.
On Thursday, I spent a delightful half-hour goofing around on the Michaels chat. I was just about to log off when a pop-up window announced that I had received a “thanks” from another user for my response to a question. “You can now become a coach!” the pop-up said, above a gray button that read “Become a coach.” I couldn’t resist; after all, it’s not every day that I receive an offer to become a Michaels coach. Once I clicked the button, my browser directed me to a forum on a site called TokyWoky, which looked similar to popular work chat app Slack.
The main tab showed me all questions the Michaels chat received in real time, along with all users’ answers; there were also channels for news from TokyWoky, chatting with other Michaels coaches, reporting disruptive or abusive users, and discussing specific topics like sports, fashion, and arts and crafts. To be a coach was to have Michaels omniscience, something I felt like I hardly deserved for having spent 30 minutes joking around about whether Pop-Tarts are ravioli and swapping ideas for the best crafts projects to soothe existential angst.
I’d never heard of TokyWoky before, but it appears that the Michaels chat is representative of its work: Its website says the company “helps brands create unique experiences for their loyal customers and turn them into advocates.” (I would consider chatting with strangers about whether Michaels sells guillotines a “unique experience,” so it’s certainly delivering on that front.) In a 2019 blog post, Michaels’ executive vice president of marketing boasted that the TokyWoky platform “generated 100,000s of conversations between customers” in 2018, which allowed the company “to identify the brand’s most engaged customers” who “now answer other shoppers’ questions and create meaningful content, allowing Michaels to build a helpful customer community.”
In short, the model here appears to be that a chat platform can help brands cultivate customers so dedicated that they’re willing to spend their free time answering questions on behalf of the company in return for a bit of power. On the TokyWoky platform, I learned that there were different “levels” of coach to aspire to—I had received from other chatters 30 “prayer hand emoji” points, the bare minimum to qualify me as a “rookie coach.” The next level, junior coach, required 50 points; to be a “master coach,” the highest of the six levels, required 30,000 points.
By Friday morning, the Michaels chat was no more. On my TokyWoky coach page, I could see that all questions from Thursday had been removed. There was also an announcement from TokyWoky leadership that the chat would be shut down until further notice, due to “what looks like a group of spammers.” That admin posted an update hours later that the “situation seems under control so far” and that the chat may reopen, but the next day, that “group of spammers” found the chat section on websites of two other British TokyWoky clients: Whittard, a British coffee and tea company, and Overclockers, a PC gaming company with more than 600 coaches, according to a TokyWoky blog post. The chat functions on company websites would be shut down for a bit longer still—and remains closed as of Tuesday afternoon.
Even the internal TokyWoky chat looked like a mess, as longtime Michaels coaches tried to interject or report the riff-raff coaches like me, who must have slipped in during the initial chaos and were now posting memes in the coach chat. Particularly disruptive coaches were reported to administrators and removed.
But a group of coaches has begun discussing how they might preserve the magic of the Michaels chat. A British 17-year-old—at least according to their profile—posited a new tool that would make TokyWoky similar to Mastodon, a decentralized, open-source social media site. This user proposes specific features that could benefit client companies and their customers, as well as a business plan: The clients’ money could subsidize subcommunities on TokyWoky, allowing the company to continue hosting client-specific content, like a chat where loyal Michaels customers answer questions from other customers, while also allowing weirdos on the internet to chat about other things. It’s an intriguing proposition, especially as users are increasingly wary of big social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. Many have called into question their business models of selling ads based on user data.
Having a company subsidize platform costs with client money would surely have its own issues—moderation, for instance, is a problem that even social media sites with dedicated employees continue to grapple with, while TokyWoky coaches are nearly all volunteers. But it’s clear that if TokyWoky wants to open these chat communities again (and keep their clients), they must find some way to manage the hordes of Michaelheads who want to chat about their favorite order at Taco Bell.
For now, Quentin Lebeau, TokyWoky’s co-founder, says they’re working on features to better moderate chats, like keyword recognition and limiting interactions to registered users. As for that alternative business model, he says the company’s focus will remain on building community platforms to help brands. “Our business is growing fast and we can’t afford to lose focus right now,” he wrote in an email. “That being said, we’ve agreed to take some time outside of our business hours with part of the staff to set up a dedicated open version of our Q&A TokyWoky chat to allow users to keep enjoying that experience.”
In the meantime, though, Michaels and TokyWoky are leaning into the free publicity. While the Michaels chat is no longer available through the actual Michaels website, Michaels’ Twitter account is linking fans to a stand-alone TokyWoky chat “for a limited time.”