We live in an era of People Power. The will of the people has decided that we’re leaving the European Union and that the most powerful country in the world is run by a misogynist narcissist with the attention span of a tweet. Good times. And it seems that this kind of populist decision making filters right down from the government to the small businesses of the UK. The People have the power to break a small business now, more than they ever have before.
And it’s worrying. It takes years to build up the reputation of a business and now, it seems, only hours to break it. The reasons people turn against a company can be true or just hearsay but once a complaint goes viral, fact-checking seems to go by the wayside and the masses pile in, giving their 1-star reviews on a Facebook page, attacking on Twitter and organising boycotts via change.org. The power of social media is immense.
Take Cedar Falls Health Farm, currently enjoying a rating of 4.1 stars on Facebook after years of consistent good reviews from happy customers. 371 5* reviews, 82 4*reviews and a smattering of 3* and 2*. So why is the rating only 4.1? Why that’d be the 80 angry reviewers from July 2014, who piled in with their 1* reviews. What do you think happened in that month? Were the 80 people all there on a hen party that somehow went disastrously wrong? No. I doubt any of them ever set foot in the place. What happened was a thread on Mumsnet that called the spa out for discriminating against breastfeeding mothers and before the spa even had a chance to respond, it was deluged with critical reviews. There was some ambiguity about the actual charges brought against the place – the policy actually excluded all under 16s, not just breastfeeding babies – but the damage was done. Obviously, their star rating has recovered, three years on, but you could see how something like that could sink a business.
The most recent example of a social media slaying concerns the Tea House Theatre. Now, if you’ve read this blog for long enough, you’ll know how much we loved the Tea House during our time in Kennington. We watched movies there at Christmas, hung out for hours on those mat leave mornings and even carved pumpkins there one Halloween. And I’m going to go there and say it – they don’t deserve the treatment they’re getting. I’m not going into the details of the admittedly ill-advised job ad that started this storm but I know how hard it has been to keep a cafe and arts venue running in an expensive part of London for what must be six years now. It would be a horrific shame if it was all destroyed by this one incident. Two actors had a burst of temperament. Quite frankly, I’m amazed that anyone is amazed.
It’s not just cafes and spas that find their reputation threatened by social media users on a mission. Lately, I’ve seen a community Facebook page hammered by local Conservatives because the owner expressed a pro-Corbyn opinion. I went to post something on the Facebook page for my kids’ drama classes and noticed 1* reviews from people who were angry about something the drama teachers had no control over. A visitor centre that hasn’t even opened yet is defending itself for its late licence application, amid shrieks of “illegal marsh raves”.
But it’s small businesses that take the brunt of it – there’s a thread brewing on Mumsnet right now, where a cafe owner has been accused of being unfriendly to children and there’s pressure on the original poster to “name and shame”. What happened in the cafe is only known to the people who were there, but if the name of the cafe is released there could be a social media assault of epic proportions. These things spiral out of control and the truth is lost in the whirl of outrage.
So, think – next time you’re ask to hashtag, share, boycott, review, petition or generally speak out against a small business, ask yourself if it’s worth it. Verify the truth of the accusations. Assess what impact this actually has on your life. Assess what impact it might have on someone else’s life. Think about whether a social media storm might destroy a business that’s actually doing some good in the world. Think about whether the business owners may have a clutch of small children that are depending on the business succeeding. Ask someone who’s actually been there. Don’t get caught up in mob mentality. Decide for yourself whether the Beast is actually a monster that needs to be killed or someone who can be kind and good, given the right kind of care and attention from a bookish French peasant girl.
I think I got a bit off piste there but here’s the take home. Don’t be an arse on social media unless you’re 100% convinced it’s worth being an arse. If you need to troll someone, refer back to my first paragraph. Trump’s on Twitter all the time. Fair game.