Everybody loves a good “social media lets @everyperson take down a corporate Goliath” story. I enjoyed seeing Dave Carroll take an indifferent United Airlines to task for breaking his guitar and quickly soar to over 5MM views and major media coverage. There are plenty of stories validating that a complaint aired on Twitter gets quick attention, and it was funny to see Horizon Realty’s cluelessness in attempting to respond to a ‘libelous’ tweet.
But there’s a dark side to social media’s ability to break down barriers. I was delighted that Heather B. Armstrong finally got her Maytag washing machine fixed. I don’t begrudge her tweeting about it, or even asking the customer service rep “do you know what Twitter is.” Because it sounds like she had a terrible experience and an awful day, and I’d probably have tweeted it too. So where’s the dark side?
Well, Heather (a.k.a. @Dooce) has over a million followers on Twitter. As great as it is that anyone can tweet their dissatisfaction, “some animals are more equal than others”, to quote Orwell. With about 1K followers, I might or might not get as quick or satisfactory a response as she did. And I know plenty of folks with less than a hundred Twitter followers because they’re in it for reasons other than amassing followers. I’m not sure that this new stratification – based on social media-enabled connections rather than family connections, political clout, or good old-fashioned wealth – is better than old styles of stratification.
Recently a customer had an issue signing up for service at the company where I work, and he contacted us about it. When I saw that his title was “social media strategist”, I picked up the phone just a little more quickly than I might have otherwise. I felt exactly as I felt about giving extra attentive service to the local millionaire or celebrity back in my bartending days.
Anyone at the top of the new stratification may disagree and claim that they’ve earned their clout through hard work – and you can do the same, if you’re willing to work for it. There’s some truth to that nouveau riche-sounding claim, but I’m pretty sure most of us won’t equal Ashton Kutcher or even Heather Armstrong with any amount of effort. And so, quicker than we might like, social capital is in the hands of the social capitalists, and we get back to that old question “Do you know who I am?”
Anyone who’s ever felt privilege – even the temporary privilege of drinking for free because your band is hot at the moment – believes that they’ve earned it through their hard work, natural talent or smarts. Should I accept that the invisible hand is allocating whuffie as fairly as Adam Smith believed it allocated wealth? Am I just having an uncharacteristically negative evening? Am I searching for the cloud in the social media silver lining? Am I simply envious? I’m not sure I’ll like the answers to those questions. But I’m hitting ‘Publish’ regardless.
Photo by irLordy