by MIA FREEDMAN
Bullies, stop it. Yes, I do believe we’re all in violent agreement on that point. Except we can’t seem to agree exactly who’s being bullied or by whom. We can’t even agree what bullying is. Anyone?
A little while ago, one of America’s most famous bloggers, Heather Armstrong of Dooce.com had a terrible experience with a new clothes dryer. Are you still reading? I promise this gets more interesting. You don’t need to know the specific details of the dryer drama because other people’s faulty appliances are about as interesting as hearing about that time their luggage was lost. Really? Tell me MORE! And THEN what did the woman from American Airlines say?
Anyhow, the important part is this: Heather Armstrong’s bad experience involved a faulty dryer, a faulty replacement, ongoing woeful service and a total disregard for her rights as a consumer. After weeks of frustration, she finally took to Twitter to name-shame the giant multinational company and vent about her experience.
Guess what happened next. She was called a bully. Didn’t see that one coming, did you. And neither did she. Despite giving the company numerous chances to fix their repeated stuff-ups and warning them that she would mention it on Twitter (to which the customer service representative replied “so what?”), Armstrong never imagined she’d be accused of bullying a multi-billion dollar company with a few exasperated tweets.
The online world erupted into a debate about whether or not the fact Heather Armstrong had a million Twitter followers gave her an unfair advantage over the white-goods company. Was she a bully? Many decided she was and slammed her for it. Others insisted she was simply using her power as a consumer. Had she received what she’d paid for, there’d have been no need to complain. You can’t blame her for being popular, they argued.
Meanwhile the company, realising the magnitude of their stuff-up, hustled their CEO onto the phone to try and make amends. Armstrong politely refused his offer of a free dryer, insisting she was happy to pay for a working one and asking instead that he donate a new appliance to a local women’s shelter.
Bullying is not what Heather Armstrong did. Bullying is altogether something different and it’s dangerous to dilute the potency of the term by becoming the boy who cried bully. For true victims, we need this word to mean something.
When someone stands up to you or disagrees with your views, you’re not being bullied. And the people who seem most confused about this are those who haven’t caught up with the fact the Internet has changed the paradigm of power in our society.
A few years ago, a popular fashion chain was selling baby clothes with smart-arse slogans on the front like “I’m a tits man”. A Current Affair, Today Tonight and newspapers around the country went big on this story with 48 hours of outraged coverage. Did the company do anything? Not a sausage.
A week later, I received an email from a woman who’d been in one of these stores and seen a previously unreported slogan that made an appalling joke about child abuse. Along with a photo of the item, the woman attached a copy of her correspondence with the company who had dismissed her complaint in the most arrogant way.
On Mamamia, I wrote about it, pointing out what a big fan of this brand I’d always been but how, while they continued to sell baby clothes with abuse jokes on them, I could not in good faith, walk into their stores anymore.
Almost immediately, that post went viral via social media. Some people were scathing, accusing me of leading a witch hunt and demanding a boycott. I did no such thing. I simply exercised my right as a consumer to speak with my wallet and choose the retailers I support. As it turned out, thousands of other people felt the same way, contacting the company to tell them while sharing their intentions via their own networks. These same people may have also seen the earlier TV and newspaper coverage but online, your views are far more visible both to your friends and to businesses. Suddenly, business owners can see how their customers (and potential customers) feel and how they plan to behave. In real time.
And this is the game changer.
Which is why the fashion chain issued a statement six hours after that post went viral, confirming the withdrawal of the offensive items. And true to my word, I’ve shopped regularly there again ever since. No hard feelings.
But let’s be clear. This was not bullying. There was nothing abusive or even organised about the post that was published. It was simply a polite, authentic expression of how I felt and it happened that many others felt the same. And I’m not telling you this to blow smoke up my own skirt because it’s not about any individual. Many people feel strongly about many different things. But when a large group feel the same way about the same thing, social media means they can now circumvent the old fashioned written complaint channels and make their voices heard in loud numbers immediately. Ignore them at your peril.
What do you think bullying is? Do you think Heather – or me – were bullies in the examples above?