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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dangling Conversation

@markhillary asks "When you follow company Twitter accounts, do you like being able to see who runs the account, like a named person on the profile?"

I think that depends how gullible you are. When I get a letter signed by an Important Person, I generally assume it was written by his staff and signed in his absence. And when I get a mass-produced "personal letter" from an Important Person, I assume it was generated by a computer and signed by a programmer.

I got an email recently, which claimed to be a "A Personal Message from Dr. Richard Soley, Chairman and CEO, OMG and Keith Steele, CEO, PrismTech and OMG Board Member". I wrote back and thanked Richard personally - not to the address on the email (which was omg_marketing@omg.org) but to his real email address. For some reason, he ignored this. I hope he's not ill or anything.

And corporate communications sometimes use a fictional identity. Gerald Kaufman MP once tried to phone a person in the Prime Minister's office who had responded to a letter, only to discover that "Mrs E Adams" didn't actually exist. [Source: John Walsh: Beware letters from fictional civil servants (Independent May 2011)] This kind of thing is convenient for bureaucracies, because it allows incoming communications to be sorted by topic and redirected to whoever happens to be on duty that day. I'm sure the same thing often happens with Twitter, to prevent a corporate spokesperson ever being confused with a private individual.

As for company bosses, politicians and other celebrities, it would be naive to imagine that they always write their own tweets. "Of course they don't", tweets @markhillary, "but allowing helpers to do broadcast stuff is surely OK if the conversational is genuine?" Well, that depends on your idea of a genuine conversation.

It seems to me that there are some serious sociological and ethical problems here - of public/private identity, authenticity and trust - and we are only just learning how to operate in this new world.

@markhillary goes on to ask another question. "If you were interacting with a brand like Virgin Media, are you happy conversing with the brand?"

My answer to that question invokes Freud's concept of transference. Our psychological state (happiness, frustration) may depend on what we project onto a given brand or persona that we are conversing with. I generally try to separate my feelings about the company/brand from my feelings about the human being who is standing between me and the company/brand - but I don't always succeed. When we are really angry about something, it is difficult to avoid being rude or sarcastic to the junior employee that picks up the phone, even when we know it's not really their fault. Conversely, if the sales assistant is charming enough, it is tempting to buy something we don't really need.

Of course the CEO never picks up the phone herself. Funny that. When I'm conversing with the Virgin brand, I may fondly imagine that I'm getting Richard Branson's personal attention, but there is a little voice inside my head saying that's unlikely.

There is of course one thing that is likely to make me very unhappy indeed. Suppose I am naive enough to imagine I am having a personal conversation with Richard Branson or Richard Soley. Then the screen falls over and I see it is just some little functionary and not the Wizard of Oz at all. Isn't that just going to annoy me? Isn't it Richard, isn't it? #OMG.

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