Shouldn’t empowerment be considered a good thing? I am going to submit in this case that it may not be the case. The ‘net has really given everyone a voice, so wouldn’t you think that the majority would be heard and win out in the end. I’m not so sure. I think the most active we tend to see are the vocal minority, troublemakers, and generally speaking, the people with the most time on their hands. We get a lot of arguments, insults and complaining by those that think they can say whatever they want online because they have a computer, Internet access and a public forum to voice their opinion.
Of course, that is not to say that everyone that posts online or writes things falls in this category. The reason for this post is to point out the highly active ones that seem to travel the superhighway with a virtual chip on their shoulder, feeling perpetually wronged.
I have managed a variety of sites over my tenure online. Most of them have ended up having some sort of support or customer forum to invite participation and hopefully improvement through the community. On the whole, this tends to work, but it also leaves you wide open to the whiners, the incoherent and those just looking to cause problems. When you provide any way for people to post publicly or communicate via email, you open the doors to all kinds. And believe me, you will hear from them.
Why is it that people feel like it is ok to say things online that you would never consider saying if you were standing face to face? People jump right up to hand out the insults and put down anything that opposes what they think. Why is it this vocal group tends to fall back on the logic generally used by people under the age of 10, yet proclaim themselves to be smarter than you because of their extensive experience and schooling. Why is it the hostility flows unabated at the slightest written word that can be interpreted (read that twisted) as offending for whatever reason.
At times I like to post comments on websites by my local TV stations and newspapers where they make them available. I enjoy some interaction with people that have had an interest in reading and sharing their thoughts on a topic. I don’t mind a little healthy debate if intelligent and decent points are brought up. What I can’t stand are the trolls that throw in inflammatory comments simply to get a rise out of others. Trolls are typically easy to spot and are best handled by ignoring them. There are others even more annoying – those that throw out their opinion – usually opposite of the majority – laden with sharp comments, daring anyone to disagree and preempting the dissenting comments with a call of stupidity and ignorance to the parties that do. I so appreciate systems that let you “vote” such comments down, so as a group the sane thinking types can get such comments stricken or at least hidden.
Back to the “minority” aspect of this post, particularly as it applies to customer support forums. What I find is that so often those that think they have a valid argument, especially when they feel wronged, assume that everyone agrees with their position. They throw up their comments and if they don’t get the supportive response they expect, begin to call into question the integrity of the site, system and anything else they can throw in there. If ever told they are the only one, or perhaps one of a handful of people in their situation, this is called a lie and a part of some big conspiracy against them.
More typically, especially in a support situation, it is not a lie, it is really the truth. What happens when you get something shipped to you on time, in good shape and everything is as expected. Typically you say nothing and go on your merry way. Sure, a few zealots make sure to say thanks or offer their commendation, but usually, you don’t hear from them. In the world of commerce, no news is generally good news. Who you do hear from is people with something that went wrong. That is ok though because you typically want to help fix the wrong. When they call into question your practices and claim that this must be a fraudulent act against the entire customer base, that is a problem. More often than not, they typically are the one in a thousand that had a problem. Even if they did find a dozen others with problems, that is not too bad if the same ratios hold true. It is still your responsibility to “fix” the situation, but the fact that these people have an outlet makes them feel strong and empowered.
So is this a good thing that they can air their problems to the generally satisfied public in the interest of finding support for their position? If there truly is a problem, then yes. Just because something runs against the grain or voices displeasure, it shouldn’t be immediately be labeled as wrong. But, and I submit this generally not pointing to anything specific, if they are actually in the wrong, it only serves to damage the reputation of a company in a manner that is both unfair and untrue. What ends up happening is that companies move to protect themselves and the services that would otherwise help the average consumer, i.e. forums, help centers, knowledge bases, etc., get removed.
Once a company doesn’t provide these services, the outraged and supposedly wronged groups head out to other outlets to find the attention they so desperately seek. They start up “anti” sites, their own forums, or in what I consider the worst case scenarios, they post virtual fraud reports at sites designed for that purpose. Have you seen these sites? I think they were all created with good intentions, but what ends up happening generally is a lot of company bashing by people that didn’t get their way. Whether they are justified in their position or not, they have an outlet and they use it to the fullest. I have read hundreds of posts on these kinds of sites, usually for entertainment purposes. Most posts so often throw in every accusation they can, along with some obvious “impressions” of the truth in order to feel good about their vengeance against the company. In the end, the company either has to give in to the unfounded position, or lose face and likely some customers who believe the drivel out there. I really don’t believe the vigilant justice systems work all that well, but I give them their due for at least making an effort.
Is there a solution to this situation? Any time there is an opportunity for open communication, you leave yourself open to all types. In the case of the Internet, we are creating a new breed that knows no bounds. With the distance from your intended recipient and the feeling of anonymity provided by the ‘net, more people feel like they can get away with anything. No matter what they are in “normal” live, they can be whatever kind of person they want online. This grand and powerful ability can be used for good and bad, and I am afraid the bad side of this can have strong repercussions.
My only hope is that as the Web 2.0 continues to emerge (where the audience provides the content and drives people to it), there will continue to be born better systems to let the best of the web shine through while keeping the rest under wraps. I believe there should be a place on the web for most everything, but also the ability to allow it to exist or not exist wherever intended.