New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture

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.

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The Cluetrain Manifesto

The Cluetrain Manifesto undoubtedly relates to my project because it addresses the way companies should and should not speak to their consumers. It asserts that business is fundamentally human. Locke et al say “corporations work best when the people on the inside have the fullest contact possible with the people on the outside.” Social media has proven to be a great way to expand contact with customers. The conversations are no longer limited to one customer at a time per help representative. A business can essentially have contact with everyone they’re connected with on social media. However, how the conversations are managed is just as important as the contact.

Along with the idea that businesses should have as much contact with their consumers as possible, Lock et al feel that businesses need to speak to them in a genuine human voice. They say businesses are all too used to speaking with “the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal” when in reality “human conversation is the true language of commerce.” Locke et al define human conversation as open, natural, honest, direct and funny. So, social media is not just a method for businesses to spit advertising at all their Interned-bound customers at once. It’s a communication channel and the communication needs to come in a human voice. Locke et al explain that “business language” is distant, uninviting and arrogant, which puts distance between the customers and the company.

It’s important to note that social media is a two-way communication channel. Customers can talk back to the businesses and the businesses need to listen. Lock et al assert that businesses need to create a community and belong to that community by sharing their community’s concerns and responding to them. Not only can customers speak to businesses, but they can now more easily talk to each other. Locke et al say “people in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors.” So, if a business does not want to take the time to build that community and respond to their customers concerns, the customers will bring their concerns to each other instead. As I noted in my original post, this can lead to the spread of negative feedback and damage the company’s reputation.

I thought it would be beneficial to see if JetBlue and Kilroy’s were following Lock et al’s advice. Firstly, I wanted to see if they were using a human voice. Both Kilroy’s and JetBlue seemed to make an effort to be laid-back and playful in their tweets. Kilroy’s joked at its followers saying, “If you are not doing some patio drinking today, you are not a Hoosier!” People seemed to respond well to it and I think it’s because Kilroy’s was showing that it knows it’s community’s traditions and played into that tradition. (Patio drinking on a warm day.) Jet Blue approached humor in a different way. They started a series of YouTube videos with funny scenarios that people nationwide deal with. I think this stuck out to their followers because it had nothing to do with their business, yet they still put a lot of time and effort into making their community laugh, and laughter is widely valued. These two examples also brought me back to my relevancy post. Kilroy’s had to focus on something that its local Bloomington audience valued to be humorous with them, while JetBlue had to find something their widely-diverse nation audience could enjoy.

Kilroys drink or not hoosier

Secondly I wanted to see if JetBlue and Kilroy’s were ensuring two-way conversation over their social media. I found that both seemed to be doing a good job with this. You’ll see in my Kilroy’s example a customer asked if Kilroy’s could give their shirts out earlier than the usual time because it conflicted with a basketball game. Knowing that their customers value both Thursday night t-shirts and IU basketball, Kilroy’s agreed to give them out early. This is an example of understanding your community and addressing their concerns. JetBlue also tended to do a good job of responding to their customers with concerns. They would quickly respond to inquiries and if it was not something that could be handled over Twitter they would give them the best phone number, email or URL to get the problem solved.

Early Shirts

Lastly I wanted to look at how JetBlue and Kilroy’s promoted themselves. The ClueTrain manifesto seems to discourage old-form advertising, but one of the benefits of social media for businesses is the low cost promotion to a large audience. This means businesses need to negotiate between advertising and their human voice. Kilroy’s still advertises its daily specials but it does not appear distant or uninviting. I think it works because it’s not gimmicky. They advertise in a casual, human voice, like someone talking to their friend about getting drinks. JetBlue on the other hand seems to throw in some business-language advertising here and there to advertise their deals. However, these seem to be received well by their followers. I think this may be because people “follow” brands because they’re already fans. Therefore, the advertising may be seen as friendly helpful information, not an attempt to convince them to use their service. I think another big reason JetBlue and Kilroys’ advertising is taken well by their followers is they’ve already established communities and human voices. If all they did was advertise and never post anything else or converse with their followers, the advertisements may be taken differently.

Kilroys advertising

Kilroy’s advertises in a casual voice

Ideology of Openness

In their article “Overcoming the ‘Ideology of Openness’”, Gibbs, Rozaidi, and Eisenberg critique the idea that “open communication is an unmitigated good.” They believe that open knowledge is not always desirable, especially when it comes to face-threatening and task-related information. I think it’s important to look at this idea in my study of social media connections. The interests and goals of companies and consumers are different. Therefore the “openness” of Twitter may be more desirable for one than the other.

Gibbs et al speak of tensions in their article. These tensions can be understood as between consumers and companies. The engagement-disengagement tension speaks to the expectations of companies to monitor and respond to Twitter on a consistent basis. Consumers may value the ability to get help or express their concerns whenever they occur (as opposed to during office or telephone hours) but companies may value control over how their time is allotted and their time off the clock.

Along with making companies reachable 24/7, Twitter has made it so that both a company’s achievements and mistakes are broadcast by consumers to thousands of others on a daily basis. This relates to the sharing-control tension. While consumers may value the ability to quickly share negative feedback about their experiences, the targeted companies would likely prefer to keep that information confidential.

I have to agree with Gibbs et al. The openness of Twitter is not a bad thing. Gibbs et al say openness affords employees to foster relationships and achieve solutions. This is true of companies with consumers too. It allows companies to connect with consumers on a level not possible before and gives companies the opportunity to attend more quickly to concerns. Openness also affords consumers more power through visibility of their words. However, we cannot think of openness as unquestionably good either, especially from companies’ end. They’ve lost a good amount of control over their privacy and time management.