Brand Bullying: Is It The Power Of Social Media? Or Is It Just The Power Of Celebrity? And Who Will Protect Maytag From Us?
If you were on Twitter on Thursday morning between about 10:00 and 12:00 PST, you might have caught a little showdown of sorts in the mommy blogosphere as it exists on Twitter. By the way, we like showdowns in the mommy blogosphere–perhaps you’ve gleaned as much in recent weeks. Now, this particular showdown came as a response to tweets made by everybody’s favorite mommy blogger, Dooce, that concerned her bad experience with a brand new Maytag washer. This is a pretty standard use of Twitter, incidentally–to complain about products that are failing to meet expectations–since people tweet about anything and everything, it’s bound to come up at some point. And in and of itself, I don’t really think there is a problem with using Twitter as a means of getting the attention of customer service representatives–many companies have set up accounts specifically for this purpose–or simply to vent. If a product is crappy, then the company bears some responsibility in the public perception of it. And as a consumer, it is valuable information for me to have when a product doesn’t meet expectations, which is why I occasionally give bad reviews of products that did not work for me on my own commodity fetishism blog.
The thing is, Dooce has, at last count, almost 1.2 million followers on Twitter. I have just over 400. Me complaining about DreamHost is pretty easy to ignore, but Dooce tweeting repeatedly to NOT BUY MAYTAG? Not so much. Companies know this, too, which is why other companies quickly came to offer new appliances to Dooce:
Dooce’s Changing Twitter Behavior
Now, before I get too far in my deconstruction of The Maytag Incident, let me take a moment to point out that Dooce’s Twitter behavior has changed considerably in the last month or so. Yes, I noticed this phenomenon myself, but no, I’m not a stalker, I’m just one of the nearly 1.2 million people who follow her on Twitter. And also I have kind of an acute knack for pattern recognition. So here’s the thing, up until about two weeks ago (or so), Dooce has been notorious for not participating in @replies (or commenting on blogs, usually, or responding to email). If you’re not familiar with Twitter, then MOM I TOLD YOU TO QUIT READING MY BLOG. Just kidding, if you’re not really into Twitter, it might be time to join the 21st century, but also an @reply is where you basically just reply to someone by putting an “@” in front of their name. You don’t have to be following someone to get an @ reply, so for a big blogger like dooce, who follows far few people than who follow her, this is important: she could potentially read a tweet from somebody who @-replied her, even if she doesn’t follow that person.
But anyway, up until one day recently, Dooce has been what people have called a “broadcaster” on Twitter, viz., she’ll make one liners, maybe respond to her husband, or somebody very close to her, but for the most part her tweets are not part of a conversation as such. There are many people who do this. Still, it is kind of thought of as being snotty, particularly if you get @ replies regularly and ignore them. But something changed in Dooce recently, maybe her heart grew three sizes after having her most recent child, Marlo, maybe the fact that the White House responded to her husband on Twitter made her realize, ‘Huh, maybe I could interact with my public, too,’ maybe there was a PR consult–look, I don’t know, I just know that now she makes @ replies sometimes, beginning with this one, which is to another quasi-celebrity, but maybe @replies are like gateway drugs, I don’t know. And that’s great, but it is also what enabled The Maytag Incident to happen.
The Maytag Incident
Like I said, Dooce was having some problems with her brand new Maytag washer. And so she tweeted about it, and everyone who follows her was therefore told, repeatedly, “DON’T BUY MAYTAG.” Now most people, when they see this kind of thing, are just going to say, “Eh, maybe Dooce got a bad washer, but it was a freak thing,” or “Maybe she doesn’t like her Maytag, but I love mine,” right? Because that’s what reasonable people would do. But when you’re as big as Dooce, your following unfortunately starts to include people like this:
It’s just the fact of a numbers game like this: with 1.2 million followers on Twitter, you’re going to have some dumbass nutbag misogynists in the group, and some blind followers. It’s kind of unavoidable. So while me complaining about DreamHost to my 400 followers might influence them, maybe, in some way, to think before signing up with DreamHost as a web hosting company, my readers are all pretty reasonable people who can weigh the pros and cons of a service critically without my help. I don’t think we can safely say the same for people who say things like this, though:
According to Dooce, her tweets about Maytag were only made after trying (and failing) repeatedly to get customer service from Maytag on the phone. And since she has a newborn at home and another child, I’m sure that this has created a substantial mess at the Armstrong household. So I don’t blame her for being frustrated, frankly. I did a similar thing with my DreamHost experience a month ago. But as was first pointed out by @Sundry, another pretty well-known mommy blogger, Dooce’s tweets mean a little bit more than other people’s tweets:
Linda later followed up on her blog with a post about the whole conversation And, she makes very good points: mobilizing that many people against a company, particularly when your audience is big enough to be 1) impossible to control and 2) to possibly be able to vouch for the sanity and/or reasonableness of its members, is something to be taken seriously. Because now you’ve got people jumping into the fray willy-nilly, some of them (individuals and brands alike) just hoping to catch Dooce’s attention, and maybe shine a little bit of that limelight on themselves. When what probably happened was that the Armstrongs just got a defective washer, and yes, it sucks, but big deal, shit happens. And they should complain, because companies should be concerned with keeping their customers happy. And to be honest, I’m kind of predisposed to being on the Armstrong’s side, because I don’t like the kowtowing to corporate America that I’ve been seeing lately in the mommy blogosphere (more on this later), but then I see this mass of blowhardry and I have to rethink everything I’ve been thinking up to this point:
Because? OK. Enough with the bleeding-heart Si! Se Puede! bullshit, Dooce getting her washer fixed in like 8 seconds after complaining on the internet is like Oprah getting a new pair of defective Manolos after wearing them on TV. Or something. Because, like I said, I did not get anything like that kind of response to my own piss-poor consumer experience that I tweeted about for well over a week on Twitter. In fact, I wasn’t even acknowledged by the customer service team at DreamHost. Now this might be because it’s a different company, or it might be the fact that, oh yeah–I’M NOT DOOCE.
So then, to make things even weirder, Dooce responds to accusations of bullying, first on Twitter, and then by writing this post, in which she apologizes for the last big hullabaloo on the interwebs in which she was involved, which happened about a year ago, after Jenny The Bloggess referred (jokingly) to her as a mythical hobbit in her blog. [That whole thing was a misunderstanding and should never have turned into a big deal, but because of Dooce’s reaction and her celebrity everything got very strange very fast. You can read various recaps on the interwebs, I’m not going to waste time on rehashing that whole thing here.] The important point is: now, one year later, in the face of other criticism, from other quarters, Dooce is finally doing what she probably should have done a year ago, which is just to say,”Dude, I didn’t know what to say, so I said something snotty. Mea culpa.” So good. I’m glad that happened, but I’m not sure why it took a year or–more importantly–why she has to do it now, to kind of stick it to the other people involved in the fray this morning? Is it because it’s been a year since the last incident? And now she has perspective? Or, is it because Jenny The Bloggess has real talent and is beloved by her audience, and this fact has become apparent to everyone, even Dooce, over the past year? Is it because it’s becoming increasingly clear that The Bloggess isn’t just some random follower anymore, while she still has the luxury of treating the people who criticized her actions this morning as such? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you these recent developments: Dooce is following both The Bloggess and Mom101 now. As of today. But Sundry? Still out of luck.
I don’t envy Dooce in many ways. Well, in many ways I do envy her–the fact that she was on Oprah–HELLO?!–and the fact that she always looks so pretty, and her incredible eye for design–I envy her on those points. But I don’t envy being under the level of scrutiny she is. That would be hard, I suspect. And so when she is criticized for doing what many people have done before (complain about shoddy service), it seems unfair. But then again, do other, real world celebrities go on Twitter and bitch about brands? Or do they go on David Letterman and bitch about brands? I don’t think so. I think that is part of being a celebrity, no? That you cannot do stuff like that, without suffering consequences? Maybe Dooce did not set out to be a celebrity, but she is one now, and so that’s the way it goes, I think.
And then on the flip side, why are we always so excited about jumping to the defense of companies? Why is there this impulse lately, first with the #nikonhatesbabies backlash, and now this–to defend well-established institutions of capitalism? Don’t you think Maytag can stand on its own? Don’t you think Nikon can defend itself? And it’s often people who have well-documented relationships with PR companies who are jumping in and saying, “Hey, let’s not bash the big conglomerate, people.” Why? Why cannot we bash them? Or more importantly, why are we so quick to defend them? The impulse to want people to react sanely to thse kinds of things is understandable, but of late the imploring to “not jump to conclusions” is seeming a little bit convenient for me–like people are worried that maybe the PR companies won’t want to play in our sandbox anymore, if we don’t put badges up on our blog or if we don’t promise to say nice things after they throw us a party. And as much as I’d like to work with brands, I feel like we need to ask at what price? At what price do we do this?
So I guess what I’m saying is, internet, what is your take on this latest dust-up, from a future-of-the-blogosphere-and-branding standpoint? Was Dooce out of line? Or were the people who criticized her out of line? Because I cannot really decide who to side with here. And though I’m glad that some good might be coming out of this after all, I’m wondering what the best way to deal with these issue in the future is going to be.
UPDATE: In the extremely unlikely event that you’re reading this before you read Dooce, you can now read Dooce’s full story of the Maytag Incident here. There are a lot of all-cap sentences, so be forewarned.