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Social media or high society?

Thanks to Metafilter (by way of my girlfriend), I found out about a case involving the apparent power of social media. I would have missed it entirely because of the other recent social media event surrounding Michael Jackson’s death. It involves another celebrity, Adam Savage of MythBusters.

Briefly, the situation as reported in the Vancouver Sun is this: Savage got hit with $11,000 in connectivity charges from AT&T for what amounted to a few hours of use over a period of five days. The company shut off his phone as a result. Savage turned an assistant loose on the provider to try and straighten out the charges, but it appears that the real work was accomplished with a few tweets. (No disrespect intended to the assistant, of course.)

Your first reaction to this story might be, “Aha, the power of social media in action!” (It was my second, right after, “Those guys have the best job ever, and I love that show.”) But if you look deeper—not just in the MeFi comments but read Adam’s own words—you’ll see another thing at work: the power of celebrity.

“A lot of people on Twitter are saying, ‘Well it’s great that it worked for you, because you’ve got 50,000 followers, but what about the rest of us?’ ” Savage said. “And I totally agree with them.”

The fact is that the power of massed customer voices is mostly a sea-change thing for the moment. One tweet, one blog, or one Facebook group typically has little power of its own; as they accumulate, they exert pressure on businesses that want to maintain good public opinion. It’s like emailing your senator or congressperson to ask them to put their weight behind a certain bill—no matter how awesome and right I think I am, my note is almost useless by itself. It’s going to take a lot of constituents to shift a legislator’s opinion, or get one to make it a pet project instead of just something to vote on.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and Adam Savage is capable of a much louder squeak than most of us. Kudos to him for acknowledging this.  The typical customer would have spent days or weeks sorting this mess out, or might just eat the charge if it was small enough. You’d better believe that if AT&T hit me with $11-grand in charges I’d become an instant sensation on Cursebird (NSFW).

The change we’re all hoping for is that businesses don’t just use social media as an alarm system directing them to fires which must be put out. If somebody goes to the trouble of starting a social networking group founded on the premise that your company is run by thieves and/or morons, or makes a public-message complaint that is echoed by others, it doesn’t just mean some customers are unhappy—it means you’re doing something wrong. Fix the damage first, put out the fire, but if your next step isn’t taking a hard look at the policies that caused the fire, you’re missing the point of listening and are a fire hazard.

Also, congratulations to MythBusters cohost Kari Byron (no, she doesn’t know me) on successfully completing her pregnancy internship. Good luck in your new role as Doctor of Momology.