Twitter and the end of kindness | September 13, 2017

When you see somebody with spinach in their teeth, the kind thing to do is to tell them privately. If you tell them to their face, in front of a group of friends and strangers, you get the same end result; the spinach gets removed. However in doing so you bring attention to the problem, and shame the participant in the process. So what could have been an act of kindness, quickly turns into an act of cruelty and public humiliation.

There was a time, not so long ago, when you would contact a company directly if you had a problem with a product or service. Maybe the product got lost in the post or wasn’t as advertised, maybe the hotel room wasn’t as expected, or the food didn’t come up to scratch. In these situations you’d tell the waiter or manager, drop the company an email, or call customer support.

These days, when you see a problem, the first reaction is often to reach for Twitter and share your frustration with the world. With large companies this often comes from experience. We’ve all had conversations with banks, utility companies and airlines, which have gone nowhere, so we end up venting our frustration online.

While it’s easy for companies to brush private conversations under the carpet, it’s much more difficult to do in public, so we’ve quickly learned that if we take our criticisms to Twitter, there’s a better chance they will get dealt with.

I’ve had this experience myself. After several frustrated phone conversations with my airline of choice, I took my complaints to Twitter. They immediately responded, took ownership of the problem and sorted it out straight away. I’m now on some kind of airline social media watchlist (the good kind), re-enforcing the fact that if I complain on Twitter my problem will get solved faster than phoning customer services.

In order to avoid a public relations disaster, complaining on social media encourages the best customer service from a company. This is something the large companies could have avoided, by delivering consistantly great customer service through traditional channels. As this hasn’t happened, publicly shaming companies has become the go to way to ensure a good customer service.

If this stopped with large companies, or companies who you’ve experienced an irreconcilable service failure with, I wouldn’t mind. However this behaviour has become the standard behaviour with everybody now, from big companies to small companies, from celebrities to friends. Rather than contacting people directly, we’ve started using public shaming as a tool to correct behaviour.

I see it regularly on Twitter. A friend or follower tweets you to highlight some small problem. Maybe there’s a broken page on your website, a typo on your recent medium post, or you accidentally referenced the wrong user in a recent tweet.

It would be super easy to email or DM the person, but instead you post to their public timeline. Most of the time you mean well, and are simply trying to help. However by posting publicly you draw other peoples attention to the problem, forcing people to act out of shame and embarrassment rather than gratitude.

People usually post to the public timeline because it represents the least amount of effort to do a good thing. You don’t have to switch panes in your Twitter app, go hunting for their email address, or ask if they’d mind following you so you can direct message them. You can get it off your mind as quickly as possible and move on.

However sometimes it feels like there’s an ulterior motive. That there’s a small amount of joy to be had from spotting the person you’re following has done something wrong, and flagging it up in public. That you get the public perception of doing a good deed (which is always nice) while making a small but pointed statement that they’re not perfect in front of their friends. It’s as though you’ve spotted the spinach in their teeth, but decided that the kindest thing to do was to point it out loudly in a crowd, in front of a thousand of their closets friends.

Personally I’d prefer to know rather than not know, so I’m definitely not suggesting people stop pointing out these small errors and transgressions. However I think we should think twice before posting these things publicly, and if time allows, reach out to your friend or follower directly first. That way you’ll avoid accidentally embarrassing them, or making them feel that they have to act from a sense of public pressure.

More importantly it’s the kind and polite thing to do. It’s also going to make that person think more warmly of you, as you’ve done them a favour without seeking any recognition, while maintaining their dignity and public reputation at the same time.

It’s only a small behaviour nudge, but from now on I’m going to do my best to approach people directly first, whether it’s large companies, small businesses, website owners, followers or friends, when I notice something is amiss. I urge you to do the same.

Posted at September 13, 2017 12:36 PM