Monday, 31 March 2014

Will social media empower consumers or undermine our hard-won rights?

Social media allows consumers to instantly complain and get answers  - but do fears over personal data, trust and power cancel out the potential empowering benefits of the new digital landscape, asks Liz Coll of Citizens Advice. 

Last year, there were over 10 million complaints via social media, making up over a quarter of the 38 million complaints from British consumers in 2013.

That’s a large proportion, but is this just simply a channel shift, or does this say something more significant about changes in our behaviour and expectations as consumers in the digital age? 

Let’s consider the old way of doing things, when complaining meant a carefully-worded letter that probably never made it onto paper, let alone to the post box, or being held in a queue in an endless labyrinth of ‘customer support’.

The process for accessing redress and making a complaint was set and managed by the provider, including how you could complain, at what times and sometimes what about.

This required energy, commitment and willingness to battle through several bureaucratic lines. Acting alone, consumers experienced products, services and any related problems in isolation.

Compare this to what social media tools enable us to do now. You can either reach the company directly or let all of your followers know how you feel, linking in with others who might share your ire. You are no longer isolated.

It’s not just the speed or quality of the response (with some convinced of effectiveness and some sceptical) but that complaints and experiences can now be expressed on our terms, whenever we choose. They are open, visible and shared – no wonder it’s proving popular.

Context shift

But can instant responses to particular consumers’ particularly vocal complaints ever be a substitute for fair systems that safeguard consumers?

Social media complaining is just one example of how the widespread access to powerful, social technology has dramatically changed the context in which businesses deliver, people consume and governments regulate.

This is the subject of a new paper from Consumer Futures called Realising Consumer Rights: from JFK to the digital age.

Exploring six digital trends that characterise this new context, the paper explores the new ways in which consumer rights first set out by JFK in 1962 now have the potential to be realised, ways that might bypass or complement traditional channels.

But these trends have the potential to both empower and disempower. Issues around privacy, data, identity, trust, participation and power are central now to consumers in the digitally driven world.

Understanding and working productively in this complicated new terrain will be a critical task for everyone working in the consumer interest.

As Consumer Futures becomes part of Citizens Advice, we look forward to taking the discussion sparked by the paper further with regulators, policy makers and consumer advocates.

1 comment:

  1. Yes Social media will allow consumers to instantly complain and get answers;
    I am agreed on your raised questions and their explanation
    Thanks for your a very informative blog.

    Umar Ghauri:
    The Consumers Eye Pakistan (TCEP)