In “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture,” Vincent Miller discusses how conversations online have become more about maintaining relationships than substantial conversations. While Miller focuses mostly on relationships between people, I believe some of his ideas can be applied to business-consumer relationships as well.
Miller addresses the idea of being continuously contactable. He references Licoppe and Smoreda whose argument is that “a new sociability pattern of the constantly contactable, one which blurs presence and absence, has resulted in relationships becoming webs of quasi-continuous exchanges.” This is an idea that has come up in some of my previous blog posts. In Ideology of Openness I discussed how there is tension between consumers and businesses because their values for engagement are different. In Timeliness I noted how quick response was highly important at all hours. Businesses can never truly be absent anymore without risking their reputation. The fact of social media is that it’s a communication channel where both parties don’t have to be present for the conversation to continue.
Miller asserts that this continuous connectivity has led to a rise in phatic communication, which he describes as “small communicative gestures whose purpose is not to exchange meaningful information, but to express sociability, and maintain connections.” Because the Internet has afforded for such large social networks, there simply isn’t enough time to maintain meaningful conversations with every friend or follower. This is especially true for businesses that are consistently bombarded with questions and comments from consumers.
The idea of phatic communication and oversized social networks made me realize that Twitter is limited as a help service. Twitter is one of the biggest advocates of phatic communication in the fact that it limits its users to 140 characters. It often takes more than one or two sentences to completely solve a problem. Twitter is also limited because it’s public. If businesses responded to every problem posted to them on Twitter they’d be clogging up their followers’ feeds with information only relevant to one or a few. The reality is it’s more realistic to use the phone or a private help chat for solving the majority of problems: consumers get more individualized attention and more instantaneous responses. However, phatic communication can be helpful even for businesses when it comes to customer support. When JetBlue has a customer with an issue not easily solved over Twitter, they tweet them back to the link with the most beneficial support method. While this alone is not going to solve the problem, it lets the customer know JetBlue is listening and is ready and willing to help them with their problem.