For everyday users, there's power in social media platforms like Twitter. But it's going to cost you.
There is no better way to understand present-day America than to call a customer service hotline. One enters a limbo-zone designed to be maximally pacifying, with long bouts of waiting to speak to a manager, who ends up seeming just as lost in. Between each tier of support, the mid-tempo serenity of hold music encourages one to unwind the problem and begin thinking about whether a solution is actually worth pursuing. An extra few dollars in mistaken fees surely isn't worth 45 minutes on the phone. So why go on? Why waste the energy? Why focus on what isn't working, when there is so much in life to think positively about?
Last week, an English man upset about British Airways' handling of his father's lost luggage decided to spend £1,000 to promote a Twitter post: "Don't fly @BritishAirways. Their customer service is horrendous." The post was circulated to tens of thousands of people, provoking stories in Mashable, USA Today, BBC, and prompting responses from an executive at JetBlue. British Airways eventually replied through Twitter, publicly apologizing and promising the luggage had been found and was on its way back to him.
Twitter cracks open the vacuum of customer service and creates the possibility, a remote one, that fallout of systemic non-acknowledgement might be transformed into a moment of mass customer mobilization. And through the wonders of Twitter's searchable data, mass happenings of disgust can become widely visible and humiliating.
Social media is a platform for disassociation before anything else, and even earnest attempts to rally productive outcomes from it swim upstream against a backwash of disinterest.
The Guardian's Arwa Mahdawl notes the increasing frequency of these social media harassment campaigns, including recent hashtag highjackings of a Starbucks promotion to "#spreadthecheer" that was produced a flood angry posts about the company's ducking of corporate taxes. There was a similar happening with a McDonalds attempt to lure its feeders to tell their "#McDStories," which was quickly turned into a repository of folktales about food poisoning and disease.
Like many social media movements, the sense of vindication that comes along with visibility is mostly imagined. We have become overfamiliar with our dislike for the impersonal structures and self-evidently dishonest claims from major companies. Using Twitter to announce our anger at these economic polyps and the same basic story of deceit and exploitation produced by them is another way of describing our own defeat. We've run out of options. The only effective strategy is to pay a good portion of a month's salary to another corporation to try and deface a brand. And for that the reward is only the one piece of luggage you had before the whole ordeal began.
In the same way more and more jobs have begun to demand an "established social media presence" as precondition for employment, transferring customer interactions to forums like Twitter put pressure on users to possess another kind of currency to make themselves visible. Like customer support hotlines, the form itself guarantees a particular limit on the outcomes of one's complaints. Problems have become too big, and the channels we have to address them are only narrowing, with explicit caps on how many letters you can use, and how much social capital you need in order to be taken seriously.
If a person became aware of an actual health hazard on your block there should naturally be a more active response than to take to a digital notepad to compose insult puns. Social media is a platform for disassociation before anything else, and even earnest attempts to rally productive outcomes from it swim upstream against a backwash of disinterest. To gain attention one has to translate one's own suffering into a commodity, either by sloganizing it by buying an ad-promotion, or else making it a formula for punchlines, in which everyone can take turns filling in the blanks.
Airlines are the most untouchable corporations in these standoffs between one's political ideals and one's immediate need for a fix to calm the discomfort. Airlines operate on a scale so massive that customer satisfaction becomes a secondary concern. The number of companies capable of organizing and operating a business at that scale are so few, and the ability to meet the need of air travel on one's own is so difficult, that in most cases you just have to take what you get.
What's left to us is only the theater of helplessness, played out as easily on Twitter as it has been between strangers trading pre-scripted lines over the phone, which lead only deeper into the limbo-zone.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.