Big Business Fingerpainting

Fingerpainting for MumIn his usual, insightful way, Cory Doctorow again makes the case for complaining. His recent column in Information Week offered up this gem of a thought:

At this point, there is a small legion of people—vocal and angry—looking around to figure out how to e-mail me to tell me I’m an idiot. I know this, because every time I post about this subject—or any other instance in which a company is behaving badly—I get a flood of messages telling me:

  1. That it’s not [Apple|Microsoft|Amazon]’s fault, it’s [AT&T|the RIAA|the MPAA|the publishers’] fault.
  2. If I hate those products so much, why don’t I just buy someone else’s products and shut up already? It’s a free market, after all.

I’m always astounded by this reaction. Companies aren’t charities. They’re businesses. It doesn’t matter why they’re offering an unacceptable product—all that matters is that the product is unacceptable. Companies aren’t five-year-olds bringing their fingerpaintings home from kindergarten. We don’t have to put on a brave smile and tell them, “that’s just lovely dear,” and display their wares proudly on the fridge.

The idea that businesses will automatically correct behavior or that one can get a product somewhere else assumes two things:

  1. Businesses believe their behavior needs correction.
  2. For every product, more than one company produces something comparable.

To the first point, not every business takes pride in self-awareness, and companies that choose not to, rarely see a need to change, particularly if it costs them more money. As to buying elsewhere, the purchase of an iPhone, for example, locks you in to a two year contract with AT&T. If one is displeased with AT&T, but happy with the iPhone, and unlocks it for another carrier, the next software update could create a $600 brick.

Critics would contend that one can learn about AT&T’s service prior to signing a contract. They might also add that an iPhone isn’t a necessity; other phones on other networks are available. This line of thinking leads me to this portion of Cory’s piece:

When corporate apologists say, “Well, it’s a free market, shut up and buy someone else’s product,” or “Well, it’s a free market, they’re a commercial company, they have to make a profit,” they’re not really talking about a free market at all.

They’re asking for the kind of market where companies get treated like charities (at best) or like promising toddlers. If you’re in business to turn a profit, you’d better make a product we want to buy. If your partners won’t let you do that, get better partners, or a better line of work. It’s not our responsibility to buy your halt, lame products because you can’t do a better job.

To me, a free market involves ideas going back and forth between customers and companies, a dialogue instead of a monologue. Critics of complaining about company services or products miss the point of a free market if they don’t see the need for dialogue. If a company’s goal is to produce what the market wants, how can they learn what the market wants if it refuses to listen? Both accolades and complaints help companies turn the looking glass inward. When was the last time you thought it unnecessary to complain about individual behavior that adversely affected you? Why should companies get a free pass?


(Image courtesy of Aidan Love. Some rights reserved.)


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February 2008
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