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Over-Empowerment, Entitlement, and Anonymity: The Dark Side of Social Media

Over-Empowerment, Entitlement, and Anonymity: The Dark Side of Social Media

By Pat Flynn on

The Dark Side of Social Media

This is a guest post by Danny Iny from Mirasee, who caught my attention when I read a fantastic guest post of his on another blog. I’m currently taking a couple days off to enjoy time with my family for Thanksgiving, but I encourage you to read this important post about the other side of Social Media that’s not talked about very much. I’ve written about the Dark Side of Blogging and The Downsides of Working from Home before, but Danny beautifully captures the good, the bad and the ugly side of Social Media, and injects some interesting thoughts and questions that you’re welcome to chime in on at the end.

Happy holidays to everyone, and enjoy!

Don’t you love social media?

I certainly do.

On a personal level, it has connected me to dozens of new friends, hundreds of business contacts, and thousands of fans and followers.

On the community level, it has allowed people to mobilize, fight unjust governments, and rapidly spread the word to save lives from natural disasters.

And on the business level, it has turned the tables on giant corporations, and given consumers the power to unleash Dell Hell when treated unfairly.

What’s not to like?

Actually, quite a lot. Social media has a dark side. It can creep up on you and turn the nicest of people into angry, snarling monsters.

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Think again…

The Good: Empowerment

Just to be clear, I’m not knocking social media.

I’m a fan (no pun intended) – not just because it’s fun, and it’s been good for business, but because it is built on a foundation of real justice and democracy. It has leveled the playing field; everybody is created equal, with the same voice, and access to the same megaphone.

Is the system perfect? No, of course not.

But the proof is in the pudding, and while social media has certainly been good to celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Kanye West, the greatest impact has been the empowerment of revolutionaries in the Middle East, and the facilitation of disaster relief in Haiti, Japan, and elsewhere.

And social media hasn’t just been good for celebrities, revolutionaries, and the people that nature places in harm’s way – it’s also turned the tables on the power dynamics between giant corporations and the consumers that they are supposed to be serving.

Communication used to be a one-way street – corporations would create and broadcast, and consumers… well, they would consume. If the consumers weren’t happy, there wasn’t very much that they could do about it, save maybe writing a letter to the editor of one newspaper or another.

Now things are different. An irate consumer can blog, comment and tweet on a whim. Their dissatisfaction can pick up momentum of epic proportions, and bring those giant corporations to their knees.

And it can all start with a single comment or tweet. That’s what I call power!

More Good: The Economy of Free

It didn’t take long for businesses to recognize the newfound power of their customers and followers, and understand that – just as an irate customer could destroy a business – social media empowered happy and enthusiastic customers to propel businesses to new heights.

In other words, it was more advantageous than ever before for businesses to get people to like them. And what’s the easiest way to make somebody like you?

By giving them things. Lots of things. For free.

That’s how the “economy of free” was born – businesses falling over themselves to give away valuable content for free, in hopes that people will like them enough to tell their friends. Hell, we do it too, with our free “Get More Cash” video training.

This is great, and democratic. More and more valuable information is available to anyone, which means that more and more opportunities are available to everyone.

Chalk up another win for social media and democracy.

The Bad: Entitlement

Somewhere along the way, people began to realize just how much power they commanded. And as Orwell reminded us in his classic Animal Farm, power corrupts.

Whatever is routinely given comes to be expected, and this was no different.

Free gifts began as a way for businesses to curry favor with their audiences, but somewhere along the way the gifts morphed into a tithe that the audience demands from the business.

It used to be that businesses would give away free content and information, with the understanding that at some point down the road, there would be an opportunity for something to be bought. Not a requirement, but an opportunity.

But now, it’s reached the point that many consumers are offended by even the hint of a sales message. If you suggest that people tweet or share (rather than just giving, waiting, and hoping), it’s considered to be in bad form.

And as consumers have learned, social media has empowered them to make their displeasure known…

The Ugly: Over-Empowerment and Anonymity

Consumers who feel entitled to free content aren’t any better than businesses who feel entitled to their consumers’ patronage.

But social media hasn’t just given rise to this massive sense of entitlement, it’s also created a strong sense of anonymity; even though we know that there are real people behind the egg-shaped Twitter avatars, it’s very easy to forget that in the heat of an annoyed moment.

Expressing your dissatisfaction with someone while standing in front of them and seeing their face is one thing, but shooting off an angry email or tweet is entirely another. In the first instance, you get instant feedback about how your words and actions are making another human being feel, but in the second, you’re just venting your frustration at a faceless entity that you feel has wronged you. There’s no feedback, and no sense that you’re really dealing with a human being.

This is the same phenomenon that leads us to be incredibly rude to telemarketers and telephone support representatives, but on steroids.

Now we have a mass of consumers who believe businesses should cater to their every whim, whether they’re paying for it or not! Here are just a few examples of behavior that this combination of over-empowerment, entitlement and anonymity creates:

  • A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, regularly creates valuable free content for his list of subscribers. When he was invited to speak on a (free) webinar, he invited his list to participate, and he got spam complaints and un-subscriptions from people who felt that the webinar might have some sort of offer at the end of it (it didn’t).
  • We recently ran a survey of the semi-local business community, to gather data about what is really happening in the industry. We actually had one person call and leave us a voicemail because she objected to being asked demographic questions, like how old she was, her marital status, and so forth. Never mind that all of the data was collected anonymously, nobody forced her to complete the survey, and she was free to click away at any time. She left us a voicemail telling us that she felt affronted that we even asked the question.
  • After people sign up for our free video course, they have the option of “paying with a tweet” to get a bonus infographic and set of worksheets. Presumably, they would only want the bonuses after having watched the videos, and liked them (otherwise why would they want the bonuses?) – but we’ve received several angry emails from people accusing us of dishonesty and false advertising (these accusations are false – we advertise free videos, and we deliver free videos).
  • Maybe most shocking Rebecca Black released her song “Friday” on YouTube, and received death threats from people who didn’t like it. Now, I admit that I tend to like the MTV top-40 tracks that most people with self-proclaimed musical taste love to hate, and even I think “Friday” is a dumb and annoying song. But death threats?!

It feels like we’ve gone way past just the empowerment of consumers over corporations who treat them unfairly, and all the way to consumers who hold businesses hostage to their expectations, however unreasonable those expectations may be.

I think we’ve gone too far…

Don’t get me wrong – I really appreciate the input that people send me every day about what they like and don’t like about the content that we produce. I value the encouragement, and I value the constructive feedback.

What I don’t appreciate is the feeling of entitlement that is clearly evident in some of that feedback; they aren’t interested in helping us improve, or creating a better experience for themselves – they’re just venting their frustration about not being courted in the way that they think they deserve.

I hope other businesses and entrepreneurs will join me in saying “enough”:

  • If you don’t like my content or opinions, then you don’t have to consume them.
  • If you don’t feel that my bonuses justify a tweet, then don’t tweet – but I don’t owe you free content.
  • If you don’t want to receive the occasional offer between all the free advice that I send to my list, then please unsubscribe.
  • You don’t have to buy anything from me, or read anything that I write, but you don’t have a right to feel indignant about the fact that I have things for sale.
  • And most importantly, no matter what you may feel entitled to, you don’t have the right to be rude or disrespectful.

And even more importantly, I hope that other consumers of social media will join me in my attempts to be mindful that the people we’re dealing with are people – not avatars, not robots, and not algorithms, but people. They’re entitled to earn a livelihood, and they’re human beings who will make mistakes. They have feelings, and they deserve to be treated with respect.

What do you think? Am I being unreasonable? Please leave a comment and (respectfully) share your take…

Danny Iny (@DannyIny) is an author, strategist, serial entrepreneur, expert marketer, and the Freddy Krueger of Blogging. Together with Guy Kawasaki, Brian Clark, Mitch Joel, he wrote the book on how to build an engaged audience from scratch.

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