Does Internet Shaming of Companies Really Help?

The Washington Post observes the trend of Internet shaming, in which people embarrass companies and individuals online for their bad behavior.

“There’s no question that publicly shaming someone, whether it is a politician or a company, is the best way not only to get their attention but to change their behavior,” said Jeff Chester, executive director for the District-based consumer-advocacy group Center for Digital Democracy. “People are going to be very sensitive to it.”

I’m skeptical. Sure, Internet shaming leads to results, such as in the case of the girl who stole someone’s expensive mobile phone: she was arrested. But it seems to me that when the target is a corporation, the results are not as clearly a change of behavior. (I question even whether shaming the phone-thief actually changed her behavior—she and her family were defiant even after the police arrived.)

Look at the recent examples the Post mentions: the AOL support technician who wouldn’t let a customer cancel and the Comcast repairman who fell asleep. In each case, the companies involved fired a lower-level employee. AOL, for employee John’s rote following of his script. As the New York Times pointed out, what made the conversation remarkable was not the employee’s transgression, per se:

If John’s behavior had been that of a person in the grip of genuine pathological madness, the recording of the call would not have drawn the attention of so many people, nor would it have been replayed on national television and radio programs. What one hears in John is an actor performing clumsily, to be sure, but working with a script provided by his employer that confuses “customer service” with “sales.”

In other words, John was simply following company policy; he wasn’t a particularly malicious individual. Of course, he should have exercised better judgment about when to abandon the script. But instead of addressing an internal culture that contributed to such behavior, AOL made him a scapegoat. Someone lost his job, and the real problem lives on (in another anecdote suggesting this isn’t isolated behavior for AOL, a woman couldn’t get the ISP to cancel her deceased mother’s account).

Likewise, Comcast fired the employee videoed sleeping on the job, but the real problem is a company that puts even its employees on hold for so long that they can fall asleep. And I know from personal experience that Comcast treats its customers the same way. I used to have a phone whose battery would quit after an hour; on hold with Comcast that long, my phone died, and I had to return to the back of the queue.

Finally, the vigilantism that online shaming definitely does seem to accomplish is of questionable value. As the Times reported a few weeks ago, Internet mob justice can escalate to dangerous levels, as it has in China, where strangers harass in person men accused online of adultery.


  1. I’m not sure shaming (or boycotting, for that matter) is done for the purpose of making a company change policies. Everyone loves to see the big guys do stupid things. When I heard Vincent’s phone call, I didn’t think, “Boy, I hope AOL changes their ways because of this.” I thought, “Wow. AOL employs rude morons in their call center.”

  2. I’m also somewhat sceptical that internet shaming does cause companies to change their actions significantly. However, I do think that, as Thomas Friedman said, the internet allows the small to act big. Even if behaviour is not substantially altered, technology has empowered the individual to attract attention more easily and cause some change (i.e. the firing of an employee) to occur. So, the war may be unaffected, but at least a few battles have been won.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


One Trackback