The so-called ‘social media revolution’ has spawned a range of unexpected consequences, and the other day I was reminded of one that’s become increasingly common. After flying from Heathrow to Frankfurt, I posted a tweet about the appallingly rude staff at Frankfurt airport. Within a few hours I received an apologetic Twitter reply from the German airport, inviting me to send a feedback email to the airport operator.

‘Wow, impressive!’ you’re probably thinking and of course, marketers would undoubtedly applaud this brilliant use of social media to engage with customers. It was swift, direct and personal. So did I send the feedback email? Nope because I knew that no matter how swift, direct and personal the reply on Twitter, actually providing said feedback would be a waste of time.

In theory, I’m perfectly willing to comment on poor service or quality. But the fact is, I’ve sent countless such letters and emails over the years, and I concluded a long time ago that they are pointless. Nothing changes and – notwithstanding the odd form-letter reply – the effect of hitting ‘send’ is akin to slipping a note into a Coke bottle, and chucking it over the side of the Queen Mary somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.

In fact, I’d argue that an unintended consequence of the social media phenomenon is to expose a putatively client-focused strategy for the charade it is. I see no evidence that social media engagement influences product development or service improvement. Instead, responding to clients on Twitter has become an end unto itself, proof that companies are ‘listening’.

I’m pretty confident that the folks in Frankfurt know precisely what’s wrong with their airport, and why it consistently ranks among the world’s least favourite. For instance, do they need me to tell them that allowing their shuttle bus drivers to stand on the pavement shouting at passengers, with their eyes and the veins in their necks engorged with rage, is inappropriate? I could go on but I’ll spare you. The larger question is, do they truly rely on ‘customer feedback’ to discover that the most basic aspects of their own business aren’t working?

As for social media engagement, the concurrent phenomenon which no one seems to talk about anymore but which is surely much more telling is the impossibility nowadays of ever speaking to a human being on the telephone about a problem. Checking into a Virgin Atlantic flight on the Internet a while back, I hit ‘submit’ and was informed there was a technical problem and that I needed to ring tech support. Ringing tech support, an outgoing message assured me that I would find all the help I needed on the airline’s website – and then hung up. Sound familiar? How many of us have spent hours on the phone navigating endless automated ‘options’ and never reaching a human being with a real-time pulse who’s able to address our specific problem?

Indeed, the pressure on companies to provide all manner of support and service options has been conveniently matched by the equal and opposite tools offered by technology, which enable those same companies to hide behind impenetrable voicemail loops, FAQs, and ‘Talk to Lisa’ webchats, invariably fronted by cartoonish non-humans that look like female superheroes but have no powers at all, super or otherwise.

Of course, before the social media revolution gave us the option of griping on Twitter and being guaranteed a chirpy but meaningless reply, we used to talk about this stuff. In slow weeks, some newspaper columnist or other was sure to weigh in on the frustration of trying to reach BT, while readers nodded along in vigorous agreement. These days, that discussion has been drowned out by self-described ‘digital marketing experts’ gushing about the innovative ways companies can use social media to ‘engage with customers’ and ‘develop their brand’.

So how to manage this onslaught of hype? Sit back, close your eyes, and meditate on the meaningless ephemera of the material world, its crashing computers, surly staff and goods that don’t show up. Now, do you feel connected? I feel connected. Ahhh.

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