I won’t lie when I say that one of the best parts of my job is managing social media accounts; it can be legitimately fun, but it’s also a very important illustration of how the Internet affects customer/business interactions. My experience mostly comes from being a voracious and active social media user in my private life; I enjoy a following of 400+ people on Twitter, and I have seen what the network is capable of: live-blogging the Vancouver Olympic opening ceremonies, catching cheating politicians in the act, and spreading the word of everything from hot TV shows to full-blown revolutions. While some might resist it, social media is vital for modern reputation management and customer service; the web has democratized marketing in a very drastic way, making it nearly impossible for a company to cover up substantial issues with their products or service. When you do a great job, you might get the occasional positive mention; when you mess up, your customers will definitely air their grievances. And as a social media user myself, I can vouch for the fact that the public has come to respect businesses that address these issues honestly when they’re contacted about them.
Unfortunately, this democratization has lead to some inevitable abuses of the system. In some cases it’s a rival company posting fake reviews in an attempt to discredit the competition; in others, a company (or person) may be the subject of a vicious complaint that goes viral online. Part of online reputation management is being able to mitigate these issues, whether by reporting abuse to site moderators or addressing complaints head-on.
I say all of this because some business owners on desktop and Android platforms may see a new feature on Twitter in the coming weeks: an in-tweet ‘Report Abuse’ button. Currently, users who wish to flag threats must visit the online help center and go through several extra steps to report abuse; the new button will make the process far quicker, and (hopefully) hasten the removal of hate speech. Twitter’s announcement wasn’t just a routine update; it was spurred largely by a British woman named Caroline Criado-Perez, and the flood of horrific rape, violence, and bomb threats she received over the weekend. These weren’t mere trolls; the abuse got so serious that at least one man was arrested on Sunday as a result. What did Criado-Perez do to warrant hundreds of 140-character threats of violence? She campaigned—successfully—for the British government to put author Jane Austen’s face on the new £10 banknote. The threats were also sent to a female Member of Parliament who tweeted her support for the campaign.
If it seems absurd, that’s because it is; this wasn’t a case of radical politics or controversial opinion, but a fairly tame move to represent more British women on currency. The horrifying result was a stark reminder of the abusive power of social media, especially against women and other marginalized groups in society. But even if you’re not an active participant in social issues online, it’s intimidating to realize just how quickly the anonymous web can turn against you. While some have applauded Twitter for finally taking a decisive action to make their website safer for all users, the decision has also drawn criticism from people who have seen how ‘Report Abuse’ functions on other websites have actually been used against legitimate accounts as a form of abuse in and of itself; a group of trolls flagging an account they disagree with can result in that account being suspended by the website, even when the owner hasn’t actually violated any rules.
Of course, the gender politics and personal vendettas of social media are quite a bit more intense than what we do as SEOs to help clients. In terms of reputation management online, the Report Abuse button will likely be a helpful way to ensure that a company doesn’t suffer from malicious treatment. However, it also may be far too easy to report a dissatisfied (and vocal) customer out of sheer frustration. Online reputation is a fickle beast; a few damning reviews can take down an entire small business, and the damage can be very difficult to control—it’s easy to feel helpless when it seems like nothing you do can push down a few dissatisfied customers in favor of the happy ones. Business owners on Twitter should still make it a priority to engage with unhappy customers on a personal level, rather than just report an account because of a particularly bad review—even if it makes the problem temporarily disappear, the Internet is not kind to those types of tactics.
The Criado-Perez debacle over the weekend has shown Twitter’s dark side, particularly when it comes to misogyny and online gender violence. The effect of the new reporting feature remains to be seen in that regard. While smaller businesses on social media may not engage in that debate, it’s a prudent reminder that the web’s anonymity can cause a lot of malicious action in the name of free speech. Reputation management isn’t going to get easier as a result of Twitter’s changes; it will still require a human touch and an honest connection, because that’s what garners respect in the social media sphere. But hopefully this small corner of the web will be a little safer for everyone who uses it, giving people more courage to speak their minds without fear of retaliatory attempts to forcibly silence them.