When social media goes wrong

Andy Nairn: all too often with social media, the emphasis is on the risk of things going wrong
Andy Nairn: all too often with social media, the emphasis is on the risk of things going wrong

I'd like to share a mildly amusing but, in some ways, somewhat terrifying experience that happened to me on social media last week.

It was the first day back and as I waddled in to work after a fortnight of feasting, I thought I'd make light of my shameful gluttony, with the following tweet:

OK, I said it was only "mildly" amusing, but people who follow me on Twitter will know that that is about as good as it gets. Clearly, I wasn't really blaming Hotpoint for my corpulent conundrum and equally obviously, I wasn't expecting them to reply. But they did, with this helpful message:

Well, if my buttons were popping out of my jeans before, my eyes were popping out of my head now.  I read my original message again. Surely, the timing of the tweet, the knowing replies of friends and a quick glance at the utter drivel that I typically post should have made my intentions clear?  But maybe my leaden attempts at humour weren't obvious enough. Slightly chastened by this possibility, I decided to come clean, with the following tweet: 

Again, I'm not claiming this was an example of Wildean wit. But the response could have been titled "The importance of being earnest":

Now, this is where I stopped laughing and started worrying. It seems to me that this little exchange is indicative of the wider ills of social media today.  

Most obviously, it shows the anodyne level of many brand interactions (this one might be an extreme example, but stuff like this is the norm, rather than the exception).  In addition (and without being too harsh on poor old Danni and Tyler), it raises questions about training and the people to whom we entrust community management.  It also touches on measurement difficulties, especially when it comes to decoding that most British of traits – sarcasm - and allocating it as either positive or negative sentiment.

Above all though, it speaks to the fear that many organisations have of interacting with the public via social media. The emphasis is always on the risk of things going wrong. The instinct is always to assume the worst. The worry is that too much personality will offend, so vanilla responses become the default.

We talk about companies embracing social media but all too often, that embrace is the terrified grip of someone clutching a bomb that is about to go off.  It's time to wrap our arms round it like we’d greet a firm friend: adjusting our tone according to the moment, but starting from a position of enthusiasm, confidence and affection.

In short, at a time when there is much talk of the potential automation of social media enquiries, this incident shows why brands need to be more human, not less. Although if you want a machine, you can probably get a really nice one from Hotpoint.

Andy Nairn is the founding partner of Lucky Generals

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