Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Trolling American Airlines or Lessons in Corporate Social Media

So, last week news was made when a stupid Dutch girl tweeted a bomb threat at American Airlines. She ended up under arrest and will probably "learn" an expensive, traumatic "lesson" from the whole thing.

I'm not defending her actions. It's stupid and immature. Yes, she's 14 and 14 year olds make mistakes like that all the time, but you're also never going to convince any corporation or law enforcement agency that, "I thought she was a stupid kid" is a real excuse if something does indeed happen - that is the narrative for almost every school shooting.

No, the real shocker from this whole mess is how oblivious American Airlines is to the nature of social media and the culture in which we now live, increasingly dominated by it.

We would have never heard of this girl (or maybe it would have been buried at the bottom of the Dutch-language version of CNN.com were it not for the twitter response AA made. They told her, publicly, on twitter, that they were reporting her tweet and her ip address to the FBI.

They were going to do this anyway - it's standard procedure. They didn't though, need to tell her so in a public fashion. The response became more of a story than the initial stupid fake threat. Airlines get fake threats all the time - they get tracked down and people are dealt with. It rarely makes news. Why? No one wants to encourage the kind of publicity these things bring to stupid, sometimes troubled individuals.

That's smart policy. Don't bring attention to things you want to discourage. It's why no TV stations will show people running on the field at sporting events anymore - luckily we have cell phone video and youtube now (because that stuff is almost always funny).

Social media is the pinnacle of free speech. I know twitter has a TOS and they've already suspended the girls' account, as they purportedly do to any account which threatens anyone. Bu really social media is a society all its own - there are mores and values that are being established as people join, participate and communicate.

One of the key values of social media is "don't troll someone without being prepared for the consequences." If the airline hasn't responded, there would have been a dozen American Airline fanatics who monitor the feed who would have filled her phone with responses. She would have been properly shamed (not to mention the FBI visit and arrest, which, again, would have happened anyway).

But, it also works in reverse. American Airlines, the big mean corporation tweets back at the stupid, sad little girl and freaks her out. She went nuts from that one response and all of a sudden, she seems like the victim in this whole thing.

Low and behold, now there are dozens of people routinely tweeting bomb threats at all manner of airlines. They're going to have to waste time and money investigating all of them. People will get arrested, even if they end up with no more than some fines and slap on the wrist. You just can't let any of these things go, because... what if?

The Washington Post article seems to imply this will be the downfall of corporate interaction of social media, that there is somehow no way to actually answer real quests and solve real problems while people are attacking "greedy corporate titans." Like the trolls are going to somehow ruin the major mode of communication for an increasingly large and important customer base. It's preposterous.

What this should be teaching us - or perhaps big corporations - is that you can't just sit some intern in front of a ten-year-old Dell desktop and expect them to run your twitter feed. Well, honestly, an intern would have probably know what to do in this situation and avoided the whole mess.

What I mean to say is that you have to pay attention to the culture in which you operate. Zuckerberg had to ditch the hoodie to schmooze wall street money for Facebook's IPO - well, he didn't have to, but he wouldn't have gotten his money without it. Corporations spend big bucks to infiltrate, study, and understand its marketing audiences; they're already experts on corporate culture or high school culture or pub culture depending on where they target products and services. It only makes sense, if you'er using social media to integrate communication streams, that you know how people use it.

Sending bomb threats to airlines is dumb. Don't do it. Using social media to humiliate and attack people otherwise helpless to respond (whether they deserve it or not) is going to cause you more trouble than it's worth to get that small measure of revenge.

As wild and crazy and lawless as it seems, social media will pretty much always defend those who need it and attack those who deserve it. It's not a terrible culture to be a part of, but you have to know what you're getting yourself into.

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