I received several notes over the weekend asking about the incident on American where there was a flight attendant, a mom, a baby, and a big guy involved in some kind of altercation on an airplane. Some people expressed outrage about the whole thing while others wanted to know if I could shed light on what happened. My reaction? I wish every disagreement out there stopped being considered “news” just because it was caught on camera. I have a hard time writing about things like this, because I don’t know what happened, and I’m content to let the parties involved sort it out.
Every day, people all over the world flip on camera phones and start recording anything that might be considered of interest… to anyone. Inevitably, the most salacious of these end up going viral. Some people think this is good, because they uncover hidden injustices that wouldn’t otherwise have seen the light of day. That is true in the rarest of situations. Accusations of police bias, for example, may not have come to light without people and their cameras exposing a hidden issue. (Think back to the Rodney King beating – this isn’t just a cell phone issue.)
But the vast majority of these incidents aren’t even remotely in the same category. People have bad days, they get in fights, there are misunderstandings… things go wrong in the world of customer service. In most of these situations, the disagreements get resolved and people go on their way. That’s something for the company and the customer to figure out (and sometimes, the courts, if things go really wrong). But is it something the general public needs to deal with? Please, no. I can’t take anymore.
Don’t I feel bad for the crying mom? Well I feel bad that she’s crying, but I don’t feel bad about her being mistreated… because I don’t know whether she’s been mistreated. What happened before the cameras started rolling? I have no idea, and nor do any of us. Maybe this flight attendant hates babies and secretly did try to hit one. Or maybe he wasn’t aiming for a baby and the woman over-reacted to the accidental near-contact. I certainly don’t know. The parties involved will figure this out, and I don’t feel the need to be a part of it.
If I don’t care, then why am I writing about this? Well, because I do care about the impact this has on everyone involved. Once this stuff goes viral, the process of determining who is right and how to resolve the disagreement gets altered dramatically. It becomes a fight against the clock, with each passing minute resulting in thousands more shares on Facebook. Every company’s goal has to shift from figuring out what happened to simply controlling the damage asap, and that can both reward and punish the wrong people.
With this American incident, we know that the airline apologized quickly, suspended the flight attendant, and even put this woman in First Class on her return. Is that because they all deserved their fates? No. It’s because that kind of overwhelming response is now what it takes to calm down the angry masses.
This kind of instant, uninformed reaction may quell the brewing storm in the public eye, but it also has a sinister effect. It encourages people to play the “gotcha” game and try to catch someone on video doing something wrong. When that happens, it can now mean more than just a ton of views. It can be a payday.
This perverse incentive puts even more strain into any customer service situation as employees worry that one wrong misstep will end up being broadcast to the rest of the world. It’s not a healthy environment for anyone, because people just get angrier faster and with less information. There’s no attempt to step back and learn the facts. It’s all about speed with accuracy thrown by the wayside. That really bothers me, and it’s why I don’t want to write about these kinds of situations here on the blog.
I know this won’t change the way of the world, but at least it can be my small protest. Now let’s get back to some real news.