The Peril of the Laptop Sticker

By Rafe Needleman

A few weeks ago, somebody in my office came by my desk, handing out stickers for laptops. The stickers carried his team’s slogan. The problem was, the slogan wasn’t very catchy, and the stickers were artless. I was given one with the tacit understanding that I would put it on my laptop, because that’s what you do when somebody you work with gives you a laptop sticker. Right?

Fortunately, No.

I took the sticker graciously, placed it on my desk, and said Thanks. There was no need to be a jerk about it, but that crude sticker wasn’t going on my pristine, un-stickered laptop. That was my out: I’m not a stickers-on-my-laptop kind of guy.

Not my laptop.

Since then, though, my laptop has grown a sticker. Another team made one with a cool design (and no words). Since the logo is new, it’s a little mysterious. I like that. It looks good on my MacBook.

But now I’m cooked. If Sticker A guy comes around and hands out new, horrible stickers, I can’t claim that I’m not a sticker guy, because now I clearly am. Putting Sticker B guy’s sticker on my laptop opened me up to an escalation of stickers, as illustrated in this table of Sticker Expectations. This chart shows how, when you put advertising on your laptop, you also advertise that you’re open to putting more advertising on it.

Stickering a laptop is a social dance with its own moves and behavioral expectations. If you give someone a sticker, for example, you shouldn’t be offended if they don’t put it on their laptop straightaway, even if their laptop lid is three layers deep in overlapping stickers. A sticker is a gift, and a gift puts no obligation on the receiver.

But what if you are exchanging stickers? (In the world of tech startups, this is oddly common.) If you give someone a sticker, and they then immediately slap it on their laptop, and then they reach into their Chrome bag and pull out a sticker for you, the next move in the game is pre-ordained. No matter how ugly the sticker is, you pretty much have to put it on your laptop. Fair is fair.

It’s unlikely your sticker will ever touch this beauty. (Laser-etched Macbook by Glowforge)

Which is why, when a person receives a sticker, they really should not put it on their laptop immediately. Nobody should expect that. The gift should remain on its backing until later. Besides, stickers should be applied carefully, slowly, and somewhere where one can pay attention to the task of smoothing out the bubbles gently — and that’s not standing in trade show booth or sitting at a conference table with banana nut muffin crumbs everywhere.

It’s also quite possible that a person with a laptop full of stickers is trying to tell a particular story or paint a personality profile with their collage, and not every sticker they receive is going to fit the narrative. Stickers should be meaningful to the person who owns the laptop. See the Rules of Sticker Club for the open source community, for example. I will repeat what I said above: A gift given bears no obligation.

Everything I’ve written so far about stickers might appear to have an undertone of dread or obligation on the part of both the sticker giver and the recipient. Etiquette is often like that: it’s a little embarrassing to think that maybe sometimes we act without considering the mindset of the other person.

But oftentimes the mindset of the person we’re interacting with is positive. And some stickers will be given with an open heart and received with joy. So with that expectation, whenever you give someone a sticker, give them two: one for them, and one for someone else, so they can spread the joy (and your marketing dollars).

But also make sure they read this story, so they know what they’re in for.