Is Social Media Turning Us Into Whiner Nation?

This morning, I was sifting through Tweetdeck, looking for column ideas, when I came across a link to this site, which calls itself HSBC Reviews. (Thanks, @iboy.) 

Ha! I said. That reminds me of that column idea I had the other day -- about whether social media is turning us into Whiner Nation. Or Whiner World, for that matter -- and whether big, consumer-facing businesses have even the slightest idea of how to synthesize the "information" provided to them by all of these newly empowered whiners.

The answer to the first question is "yes." And to the second? No.

What got me first thinking about Whiner Nation was not even my experience with a certain car dealership, which I wrote a column about several months ago. In that instance, I suffered Twitter remorse for tweeting negatively about them. Had they committed a potentially fatal omission in servicing our car? Yes. But did I find social media tools to be too easy an avenue to vent my frustration? You betcha. At another time, in another world, I would've vented to a friend, one-on-one, over the telephone -- in addition, of course, to trying to rectify the problem directly with the dealer, which I eventually did. In that instance, I realized that the urge to use social media to vent can be the itch that won't go away. That doesn't mean we should scratch it.



What actually got me thinking about Whiner Nation was another bad customer experience I've had recently, with an institution with which my family has done a lot of business. Having suffered the psychological ravages of Twitter remorse over the car dealership, this time I'll keep it between us and them.

However, it occurred to me that the default for a fair number of people is becoming to complain about our mistreatment from Big Business in public. Even though there are many lousy customer service organizations out there, such complaining is not necessarily a good thing. As there's a lot of emotion involved, and the tools are easy to use, such outbursts tend to warp the discussion.

Then the question for business becomes learning how to balance the outrage with the reality. Though the problem of interpreting the true impact of customer dissatisfaction has existed for a long time -- I'm sure more people fill out customer service surveys when they are mad about their service then when they are happy -- the ease of use of social media tools, and their public, viral nature, brings this bias to a whole new level that companies are probably only starting to cope with.

Take HSBC Reviews. Set up by a U.K. Web design company called ThruSites, the idea of HSBC Reviews is to actually solicit tweets about HSBC, and assign those tweets a pass/fail grade. The results are entirely predictable: on the site's pass/fail-o-meter, HSBC has about a 95% fail, and the home page includes such memorable anti-HSBC tweets as "Horrible experiences at HSBC over the past 6 months reached a tipping point. Opening a new account elsewhere today." (If you check out the site, you'll see that the grade-assigning process seems to be the work of some bot that can't interpret language well, but suffice to say that most of the tweets can be legitimately labeled as negative. ThruSites says it concocted the app "just for fun.")

So what does this say about HSBC? Maybe not as much as you'd think. If I were HSBC, giving the page a mere glance might set off alarm bells. But let's not forget that the site, and Twitter itself, are set up for easy venting, and such easy venting means less than the carefully crafted complaint, be it a lengthy blog post or a consumer's decision to spend an hour writing a letter to the company she feel ripped her off.

Even though I'm sure HSBC has its share of customer service issues -- what big bank doesn't? -- reason should prevail here. Companies have to start to assign value to customer service complaints along a new measure, taking into account what lengths the consumer went to to complain. In that context, Twitter is somewhat worth watching to see how quickly a message spreads, though much of the whining may be nothing more than blather.

Interpreting consumer complaints made via social media is all a matter of degrees, and, per usual, the speed with which consumers are adopting social media is, at least for now, making it harder for companies to measure the correct temperature. In the meantime, welcome to Whiner Nation.

18 comments about "Is Social Media Turning Us Into Whiner Nation?".
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  1. Jon-Mikel Bailey from Wood Street, Inc., October 14, 2009 at 4:34 p.m.

    Personally I think people should try and realize that the more they whine the more the power of the whining outlet lessens.

  2. Rick Graf from Digital Communications (Graf Inc.), October 14, 2009 at 4:43 p.m.

    I agree that people might be to quick with key strokes on the keyboard when it comes to venting their displeasure with poor service or poor treatment, but they do have a right to claim and should. I've always felt that too few people take the time to complain. They simply take their business elsewhere.

    If customers make an attempt to resolve a dispute with a business and that business ignores them or responds in a token manner, then by all means customers should sit at the keyboard and tell the world. Many businesses fail to realize that complaints today are no longer local but global. The long-term impact may never be reconcilable.

  3. Trevor Stafford from Red Canary, October 14, 2009 at 4:49 p.m.

    Your car dealership should have done the right thing, so should this bank. This isn't whining, this is an opportunity for HSBC to listen, to put ears 'on the ground' without spending millions on surveys and focus groups and so on.

    If you're a brand manager or exec, you'd better get used to this and prepare for it, because these kind of sites are going to get more and turnkey. That is, people will be able to set them up like they would a WordPress blog or facebook page.

    Sure channels like Twitter don't give people an opportunity to whine, but that isn't new....they've <i>always</i> whined and complained and foamed at the mouth and vented and so on. What Twitter does is populate, accumulate and accelerate how it is broadcast. Scary eh?

    But here's the catch: If someone is passionately negatively about your brand, they also have the potential to be passionately positive about your brand. Now you can identify and reach out like never before. One negative experience can be converted to 20 positive recommendations if you handle it right. Even if the customer is 'wrong' it doesn't matter.

    (1) Business needs to get over itself, then
    (2) Listen and
    (3) Act

  4. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, October 14, 2009 at 5:24 p.m.

    People have always lacked power vs business when they have been wronged. But I do agree this has gotten out of hand. But then most of this whining is never heard or read so who really cares. There is so much content being tossed around, and tweets and newsfeeds that most people don't have time to read 90% of the stuff being posted to the web anyway.

  5. Niland Mortimer from Socialarc, October 14, 2009 at 5:39 p.m.

    This old adage applies to Tweets as much as to speech:

    Does it have to be said?
    Does it have to be said now?
    Does it have to be said by me?

  6. Joan Van Tassel from National University, October 14, 2009 at 6:04 p.m.

    What an insulting, patronizing column. When businesses create messages advertising their services, they set up expectations. They have enormous budgets and profits with which to amplify their messages.

    Now consumers have a feedback communication mechanism. Their only amplifiers are personal time and emotion. As another commenter pointed out, they are not whining, they are complaining. And they are complaining because the business has not lived up to their expectations.

    They have every right to use them, just as businesses have the right to advertise and sell.

    A few minutes thought and some considerate rephrasing might have made this column worthwhile. As it is stands, it is childish, churlish, blame-the-victim drivel.

  7. Greg Hall from Yebol, October 14, 2009 at 6:28 p.m.

    If it's not about collaboration it is just whining, which will not help evolve social media's ROI promise. There are many venues for opining, like Yelp. Some are helpful. But the underlying ethical promise of social media is the shared commitment to continued improvement.

  8. Nick Ketter from Talking Pictures, October 14, 2009 at 7:26 p.m.

    I disagree with the premise that social media is turning us into a "whiner nation". People have always complained about bad experiences with companies. The difference, as you point out, is with social media's ability to amplify those complaints. If the incident is isolated to just one or a few customers then it doesn't matter how many times someone complains via twitter, the overall volume will be small. But if the problem is chronic then the ability of social media to aggregrate all of those complaints is pretty powerful and a company will (should) take notice.

    But there's another problem, one which I wrote about a while back, Social media lends itself to a virtual mob mentality. This is operant not with respect to experience complaints but with things like advertising and other creative decisions (tv commercials, package design, etc). Paying too much heed to "mommy bloggers" and other tribes puts companies at the whim of any group who manages to create a virtual dust-up.

  9. Doug Pruden from Customer Experience Partners, October 14, 2009 at 8:22 p.m.

    Research in the 90's told us that only 5% of customer complaints ever reached senior management. At that time it was understood that 50% of unhappy customers told only their friends and neighbors, and another 45% complained to the cashiers, tellers and other front line folks who knew better than to send bad news up the corporate ladder.

    Welcome to the digital world where every customer has bandwidth to express themselves. If we think the Tweets and blog entries produce a lot of whining, consider the negative word of mouth in texts messages, emails, and yes even personal conversations that goes unmeasured.

  10. Mike Bawden from Brand Central Station, October 15, 2009 at 12:30 a.m.

    Interestingly enough, all of this discussion has focused on complaining and not on complimenting. It's just as easy to advocate for a brand as it is to bitch about customer service - the problem is that it's not in our nature to do so.

    Social media and all the related technology creates a whole new level of intimacy between consumers and brands. And just as businesses need to learn to get over themselves and be more transparent, work toward accommodation of customer complaints and concerns and engage; consumers need to learn how to create positive reinforcement of brand actions that they deem to be "good" beyond buying the product.

    Interestingly enough, we may find some insights into how this new relationship between consumer and brands may need to evolve by looking back on historical ideals of honor, civility and compassion/grace.

    Look at it this way: we (consumers and the brands we live with day-to-day) are close enough now to feel each others' heartbeat. One over-reaction could have disastrous consequences. Successful co-existence requires more than simple tolerance.

    This analogy goes far beyond the consumer-brand relationship, by the way. But, that's for another blog post ...

  11. Patrick Boegel from Media Logic, October 15, 2009 at 4:42 p.m.

    Here’s a concrete example to go with our collective gut instincts.

    We recently completed a social media sweep on public attitudes toward banks. Unsurprisingly, given the current state of the economy and questions about the propriety of the bailout, there is deep negative sentiment, particularly toward credit card practices.

    Is this whining?

    Well, more traditional consumer research - done at the same time – uncovered exactly the same sentiments our social sweep did, though focus groups expressed the opinions with a veneer of "someone is writing this down and analyzing what I am saying therefore I will politely phrase my displeasure.”

    Short of it: our SM sweep was a fast, intimate, volumetric and cost-effective way to get at valid data.

    Yes, because people are ungoverned by the rules of face-to-face interaction, it is critical to apply an “angry language filter” and help clients contextualize commentary. But the opinions expressed in the social media space, at least in this case, were reflective of general sentiment.

  12. Mickey Lonchar from Quisenberry, October 15, 2009 at 5:25 p.m.

    Social Media has not created the "whining." It's been there all the while. Though, as @doug deftly points out, we just weren't hearing it.

    The key for marketers is to be sure they are hearing what customers are saying, both good and bad. Letting a bad experience fester is a sure way to empower a customer to channel her anger in a way that will generate an audience for them. As an example, the viral video "United Breaks Guitars"...over 5.7 million views....

  13. Steve Climons from Crossover Creative, October 15, 2009 at 7:50 p.m.

    Whining is the hard part about social media but that's because that's what happens when someone has the right to their free speech. It's the freedom to disagree and the unfortunate thing is when it is not valid.

  14. Kirk Skodis from Trustworthy, October 16, 2009 at 1:42 a.m.

    Your argument that companies need to evolve CRM to handle this new type of data is correct, but you lose me when you trivialize the newly empowered consumer.

    As I wrote in a recent blog post, "Will Brand-Exploitation Scare Companies Away From Social Media?" (, it's about time the tables were turned in the customer's favor, and brands can leverage this shift if they're smart about it.

  15. Carol Flammer from mRELEVANCE, October 18, 2009 at 1:44 p.m.

    There are definitely lots of unhappy Joes (see my recent post on Reputation Management and Unhappy Joe - in the world and social networking and the Internet provide them with avenues to vent 24/7. Don't forget that you also control your online reputation. Being online and interacting with transparency will help to keep the whining to a dull roar.

  16. Ellen Scordato from The Stonesong Press, LLC, October 19, 2009 at 10:27 a.m.

    enjoyed this column and the comments.

  17. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., October 19, 2009 at 7:22 p.m.

    I have a feeling it will all work out for the good. To be sure, there will be some who will try to take advantage of the soapbox to get unfair favors, but I also suspect the inherent justice of the rest of the people will ultimately call them out and expose them for what they are, not "whiners," but "chiselers." Payback, as they say, is a bitch. For the first time, the little person actually has some power to wield against the machine. It is the machine, methinks, that may be doing the real "whining."

    Too many companies have the idea that customer satisfaction is some kind of achievement, when in fact, it is nothing more than minimum acceptable performance. Trouble for them is that they have gotten used to being able to claim that customer satisfaction is an achievement.

  18. Kristin Thompson from RedShift, October 27, 2009 at 2:03 p.m.

    I feel like all I read are sob stories or online displays of affection anymore. It's like we can't control how much of our emotions we share anymore. Believe me, not everyone needs to know how bad your day is or how mad you are at Starbucks for being out of pumpkin spice syrup. Whiner nation for sure.

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