Getting support via social media

Twitter wants you to DM brands about your problems” read a recent Engagdet article. It seems Twitter is making it easier to contact certain brand accounts by putting a big contact button on the profile page. The idea being that the button, along with additional information about when the account is most responsive, will make it easier for customers to get support via social media. I can understand wanting to make that process easier; Twitter and other social media sites has been an effective way for unhappy customers to get attention.

The previous sentence explains why I don’t think this will end up being a very useful feature. Good customer support seems to be the exception rather than the rule. People began turning to social media to vent their frustration with the poor service they received. To their credit, companies responded well by providing prompt responses (if not always resolutions). But the incentive there is to tamp down publicly-expressed bad sentiment.

When I worked at McDonald’s, we were told that people are more likely to talk about, and will tell more people, the customer service they experienced. Studies also show complaints have an outsized impact. The public nature of the complaint, not the specific medium, is what drives the effectiveness of social media support.

In a world where complaints are dealt with privately, I expect companies to revert to their old ways. Slow and unhelpful responses will become the norm over time. If anything, the experience may get worse since social media platforms lack some of the functionality of traditional customer support platforms. It will be easier, for example, for replies to fall through the cracks.

I try to be not-a-jerk. In most cases, I’ll go through the usual channels first and try to get the problem resolved that way. But if I take to social media for satisfaction, you can bet I’ll do it publicly.

Reporting severe weather via social media

It feels weird writing a post about sever weather in mid-December, but here we are. Over the weekend, storm chaser Dick McGowan tried to report a tornado to the NWS office in Amarillo, Texas. His report was dismissed with “There is no storm where you are located. This is NOT a valid report.” The only problem was that there was a tornado.

Weather Twitter was awash in discussion of the exchange on Saturday night. A lot of it was critical, but some was cautionary. The latter is where I want to focus. If you follow me on Twitter, it will not surprise you to hear that I’m a big fan of social media. And I think it’s been beneficial to severe weather operations. Not only does it make public reporting easier, but it allows forecasters to directly reach the public with visually-rich information in a way not previously possible.

But social media has limitations, too. Facebook’s algorithms make it nearly useless for disseminating time-sensitive information (e.g. warnings), and the selective filtering means that a large portion of the audience won’t get the message anyway. Twitter is much better for real-time posting, but is severely constrained by the 140 character limit.  In both cases, NWS meteorologists are experts on weather, not social media (though there are efforts to improve social media training for forecasters), and there’s not necessarily going to be someone keeping a close eye on incoming social media.

I don’t know all of the details of Saturday night’s event. From one picture I saw, it looked like the storm in question looked pretty weak on radar. There were also several possible places Dick could have been looking and it didn’t look he made which direction he was looking clear. At the root, this is a failure to communicate.

As I said above, I’m a big fan of social media. If I need to get in touch with someone, social media is my first choice. I frequently make low-priority weather reports to the NWS via Twitter. For high-priority reports (basically anything that meets severe criteria or that presents an immediate threat to life), I still prefer to make a phone call. Phone calls are less parallelizable, but they’re lower-latency and higher-bandwidth than Tweets. The ability for a forecaster to ask for a clarification and get an answer quickly is critical.

If you do make a severe weather report via Twitter, I strongly encourage enabling location on the Tweet. An accurate location can make a big difference. As with all miscommunications, we must strive to be clear in how we talk to others, particularly in textual form.

My friends do cool things

It’s hard to believe that a year has passed already, but it’s almost time for Mario Marathon 5. Once again, the Mario Marathon team will be raising money for Child’s Play Charity. In addition to the joys (and possible tax deductions, consult your tax professional) of helping kids, there are lots of great contest prizes. If you donate through the widget found on several funnelfiasco.com pages (for example, on the right-hand side of this page), I’ll match your donation dollar-for-dollar (up to $200 total).  Mario Marathon 5 begins at 11 AM EDT on June 22 at www.mariomarathon.com.

That’s not the only cool thing going on, though. Some other friends have just released the beta of a new website: Think Lafayette. Think Lafayette is a combination social media, community calendar, and local discussion site. Part of the launch included a profile of me, since I guess I pass for a local celebrity these days. If you’re a local, sign up and help make this a great resource.

Social steganography?

Steganography was in the news this summer when the FBI revealed that Russian intelligence agents were using steganography to pass secret messages.  Unlike encryption, which mathematically changes a message so that it can’t be read by a third party, steganography hides the message in plain sight — in this case in image files.  With the buzz in the news, there was some discussion on blogs as well.  I’m not sure how I came across it, but Danah Boyd penned an article about steganography in social media.  Boyd talks about a girl named “Carmen”, who quoted lines from a Monty Python movie to communicate distress to her friends while hiding it from her mother.

I took serious issue with the article as an example of steganography.  While it may technically meet the definition since Carmen’s mother apparently does not realize a secret message is being sent, that’s more a matter of serendipity than message obfuscation.  Frankly, it’s a better example of “Carmen’s mom has no taste in movies” than “teens can hide secret messages in Facebook”.  If Carmen’s mom had seen “Life of Brian”, which is undoubtedly older than Carmen, then the steganography fails.

Steganography only works if the recipient knows not to respond in the clear, too. If Carmen’s friend “Jane” had said “aw, what’s wrong”, the whole thing is blown. It’s possible that Carmen and her friends have worked out a protocol ahead of time, but that’s more of a code than a method.  While it would be very trivial to share secret messages on Facebook, but song lyrics from a beloved movie is a pretty bad way to do that.  To me, this article reads like another “OMG YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT KIDS ARE DOING ONLINE” piece designed to scare gullible parents.