Social media is undoubtedly growing--Facebook has grown almost 200 percent in the last year, and Twitter has grown by nearly 2,000 percent in the last year. So, the social media reach is clearly starting to expand in leaps and bounds, and many savvy businesses are jumping on the bandwagon to manage their on-line images, assist in customer service and even generate new business.
At the same time, average, everyday folks are realizing that they have newfound power over those with whom they do business. No longer can the phone company put us on hour-long holds. No longer can the cable company tell us they'll come on Monday and not show up till Thursday, because we'll tell everybody and their mother all about it on our Facebook, Twitter and MySpace pages. And if our complaint particularly moves our audience, it's bound to find an even wider audience when it goes viral.
From a customer advocacy standpoint, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. We've all had those experiences where we ended up in a call center maze, sometimes being transferred back to the person we originally spoke with. And we've had rude customer service people tell us to "have a day." Before the on-line social media craze, we had minimal respite. We could essentially take it or leave it.
So, yes, it's good that we can hold companies publicly accountable. But let's also consider this from the standpoint of companies. What if a loon calls up and wants something ridiculous, like six months of free cable because of a $5 billing error? And what if the complaintant is a serial complainer, someone who could find fault with service God Himself provides? Aren't they essentially blackmailing companies, saying "Do what I ask, or this will be all over Twitter and Facebook before you even have time to talk to your manager"?
And would we want the tables reversed? Do we want the phone company to be able to to Tweet out a list of those who are more than 60 days behind on their payments? Or do we want department stores to publicize their list of frequent returners?
Social media really has the potential to be great, but it can also be used for malevolent purposes, since it's in the hands of, well, everybody. It's a burgeoning area; even the experts have only been social media experts for about a year or two.
Because the social media landscape is so new, there aren't really any rules on how you can use it. But when I'm reading anything on-line, I use the same rules I use for evaluating statements I see in conventional mediums, like blogs or newspapers. I ask myself, "Who is the source?" I get to the root of who is saying something before I retweet. I sure as heck don't want to help someone promote an unfair negative campaign against a company because he/she holds a personal grudge.
I also ask myself when making any kind of disparaging complaint, "How will you feel if the company defends itself on-line? Will they present a side of the story you'd rather not have publicized?" I may want to gripe that a store wouldn't take my return even with the receipt. But I may not want the store to mention that the clothes I tried to return were covered in dog hair and appeared to have been worn several times.
This is a big subject, ripe with ethical and common sense dillemmas galore. I'd be interested in hearing my readers' thoughts, so please comment.