The "Shut Up" Factor Is Bad Business

Just in time for the Fourth of July, Facebook blocked me from commenting on wall posts over the weekend. Way to exemplify the whole "freedom from tyranny" theme, guys! Alas, Facebook's not the only company, public or private, to fall prey to bad customer policies that fly in the face of its supposed business model. Unless they enjoy being told to shut up, investors need to avoid such companies like the plague.

You just keep babbling on and on
Apparently, I hit some undisclosed limit of how many comments one can make on Facebook within a certain period of time. Facebook said it warned me that I was about to hit this limit, but unlike the bajillion other things the site emails me about, I never noticed any such alert.

Last I heard, Facebook's whole point is to addict users, in the hopes they'll visit its site regularly and hang out for a while each time they stop by. This boosts Facebook's traffic, and increases the odds that each visitor will see -- and click on -- advertisers' messages.

In that light, does Facebook really want visitors worrying about hitting some arbitrary limit for saying too much? Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) never admonished me for using Gmail as a chat client. (Look, I type fast.) Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) never told me I listened to "Mexican Radio" one too many times. ("Your back-button privileges on your iPod have been suspended. Weirdo.") Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) -- despite allegations that it "throttles" shipments to users who try to swap out rented movies too frequently -- has never broken the news to me that I have way too many movies in my queue, nor reminded me that I probably won't be able to watch them all if I live to be 100.

Gag orders aren't good business
To protest my digital muzzling, I've been using Facebook's own tools to give it a piece of my mind. Lots of sympathetic friends have noted the irony in a social network site clamping down on communication, and a few have suggested moving back to News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS  ) MySpace. I'm betting that's exactly the sort of word-of-mouth Facebook would prefer not to foment.

Telling customers to shut up, and thus encouraging them to abandon you for rivals or upstarts, is stupid business indeed. That's particularly true in social networking, where digital mobs tend to jump easily from a former king to the next hot thing -- and never look back. (Just ask Friendster or the ailing MySpace.) In any business, it's a good way for companies to quickly lose competitive advantage, and it should serve as a great big red flag for investors.

Look at how eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) angered power sellers who were once loyal and obsessed with its service. (Facebook, am I a "power commenter"? And if so, isn't that mostly a good thing?) Alternately, consider how Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) clumsy efforts to transform AOL from a self-contained service into an open Web community ultimately torpedoed customer satisfaction.

Now that I've said my piece, I'll do what Facebook didn't -- encourage you to speak your minds, too. Feel free to use the comment box below to discuss companies whose customer-silencing habits might hurt their long-term performance. And if you'd rather just tell me to shut up, be my guest. At this point, I'm getting used to it.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned, and she is not a bot. The Fool's disclosure policy is so very tired of being SuperPoked.


Read/Post Comments (13) | Recommend This Article (30)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 06, 2009, at 5:41 PM, mattack2 wrote:

    Netflix has a 500 movie per queue limit. (Yes, I know I will probably never watch 99% of them.)

    That limit is largely why I started using the profiles system, however. I have a 'TV' profile and a 'movie' profile (my main profile), with a few DVDs allocated to each.

  • Report this Comment On July 06, 2009, at 5:45 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    mattack2 - wow, thanks for that info! I didn't realize that (obviously, I haven't hit THAT limit yet, since I didn't get some Netflix "block" that might have enraged me yet again, ha, although my queue is probably nearing the threshold). Good to know that there are "limits" to the Netflix queue.

  • Report this Comment On July 06, 2009, at 6:17 PM, XMFSinchiruna wrote:

    Amazingly short-sighted policy ... thanks for pointing it out!

    I believe that "consumers" writ large can use recent events as a catalyst to demand superior service and responsiveness from the corporations reliant upon their revenue. I too had my share of unpleasant customer service experiences over the holiday weekend ... with "utility" providers supplying the most egregious examples.

    In fact, while we're at it, how about having something of an awakening as a populace to appreciate the willing role we play (myself included) as consuming pawns. When our demand for products and services was approaching peak levels before the markets turned, people were denied ever greater levels of customer service in favor of increasingly automated approaches where often human interaction is indeed never offered. Now that the tide of demand has shifted into a decidedly more frugal mode, people have an opportunity to demand resumption of at least basic courtesy in these streamlined processes ... or at best a wholesale return to personal customer service.

    I believe that customer service will increase in importance as a determinant of company survivability during subsequent phases of this ongoing depressionary event. Many people are experiencing financial strain, and won't tolerate the insult to injury added by low-quality corporate responsiveness. For that matter, how about corporations stop referring to us as "consumers", and offering a label with a touch more human dignity. Words sometimes matter.

    Fellow Fool, your article is a bold example of the kind of "consumer" response that will lead companies to adapt to the post-collapse economy by revamping customer service. I commend you for raising your eloquent voice, and encourage Fools to follow your lead wherever your receive unsatisfactory customer service or practices.

  • Report this Comment On July 06, 2009, at 7:35 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    Hey TMFSinchiruna -- I totally agree!!! Thanks for the thoughts here... they are eloquent too and also point to the really big picture here. Lots of companies need to be thinking about how they are treating their customers, now more than ever (although really, there's no excuse for ever forgetting that golden rule).

  • Report this Comment On July 06, 2009, at 8:33 PM, TMFBreakerThiel wrote:

    Holy cow, Alyce, how many Facebook posts did you make ?!?!

  • Report this Comment On July 06, 2009, at 8:52 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    A trillion. I can type REALLY fast. LOL, Karl, I don't know how many posts I made. I guess I was on a roll? ;) Seriously, I really don't know. You get a sort of generic message about it.

  • Report this Comment On July 06, 2009, at 8:56 PM, galtline wrote:

    Well...I side with Facebook on this one. Here is a handy list of warnings:

    http://www.facebook.com/help.php?page=421

    If you click on "why are there limits?" you'll find the following:

    "Facebook has limits in place to prevent abuse of our features and to protect users from potential spam or instances of harassment."

    The difficulty here is determining what is potential spam. Ever been on a forum that gets inundated with spam? The problem is that you can create dozens of free accounts (gmail, yahoo, hotmail, etc) and create dozens of aliases...and then let an automated program go to town.

    So, for Facebook, they dealt with the problem by coding in a failsafe mechanism.

    It's either deal with customers who are bothered that a social networking site won't let them socialize (maybe excessively) or get wall posts and friend invites from people asking to visit their website and watch their video.

    Now, with that being said, there are probably better ways to deal with excessive posters...maybe add in (as per your suggestion) a "power commenter" feature. Maybe Facebook should have their staff look at accounts flagged as "potential spammers" and decide if they warrant being blocked...if not, give them a "power commenter" status to avoid being blocked again.

  • Report this Comment On July 06, 2009, at 9:37 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    Hi galtline - thanks for taking up the other POV and I do see the whole spam bot problem. It's one of the things that I didn't personally like about MySpace, sometimes there would be outright spam in comments and it was annoying.

    But... I don't know. I was off on Friday, had too much caffeine, maybe saw too many funny things people were saying and just had to comment a few too many times I guess? Maybe I was replying a little too fast on one or two threats ("too fast" didn't occur to me till now, frankly), but I can't even imagine how that was bot-like. And like you said, there really must be a better way to deal with this than this blanket assumption and then no way (that I can find) to appeal and say, hey, I'm a human being, not a spammer....

    Anyway thanks for the thoughts, again. No matter what it seems to me there's a better way to go about this...

  • Report this Comment On July 07, 2009, at 9:11 AM, galtline wrote:

    No problem. For what it is worth, I agree with the premise of the article...I just have a little sympathy for Facebook on this one.

    Another example - my bank will shut down access to my online account if I attempt to login (and fail) 3 times. It's frustrating having to call to get access to your own account...but I understand it (and prefer that they take that precaution). Brute force attacks can be used to attempt logins repeatedly, until they gain entry. Writing in a failsafe is their way to protect against it.

    With any internet application, it's definitely a dance between pleasing the customer and preventing spam/security problems.

    Back to Facebook - I'm sure there ARE better ways that they can accommodate the "power commenter", and judging by the number of users that encounter this (I did a quick google search), I'd say others would agree. As you said, just some sort of appeal process would help.

    At the very least, they could provide a better (and more reasonable) explanation as to why they had to block your account...

    I've never been a prolific poster myself, but now I'm curious what their post limit is...

  • Report this Comment On July 07, 2009, at 10:00 AM, TMFMitten wrote:

    FREE ALYCE LOMAX!

    I hang out on Yahoo! Answers, which gets a LOT of spammers asking questions that are then answered by their own sock puppets. ("Where can I watch NFL games live streaming?" "Right here, at blahblah.com.") Then the sock puppet gets voted as the best answer, and the cycle continues.

    I'm sure galtline is right, in that Facebook is trying to avoid that kind of abuse on its service. But there has to be some way for Facebook to tell the difference between someone who posts regularly among his or her friends, and someone who injects some unrelated spam comment or link to a discussion. At the very least, Facebook could adopt some kind of appeal program. Yahoo! Answers lets you report spammers (which I do with frequency), and if more than one person places a report, the comment or question is removed, and the person who made the post gets a warning. Multiple warnings result in account suspension or termination. Yes, crazy people with personal vendettas can get happy with the report buttons and start reporting people who don't violate the terms of service, but Y!A also gives you a chance to appeal, and quite often an unjustly reported question will be restored.

    If Y!A can set up some kind of community policing like this, I don't know why Facebook can't. The way it currently works, the innocent who just want to socialize get lumped in with the spammers. That's ridiculous!

  • Report this Comment On July 13, 2009, at 6:22 PM, Corporality wrote:

    The solution to brute force attacks and bots in general has already been implemented and I will bet every reader of this article has already interacted with it.

    Remember when you have to type in the word to the left that is only semi legible because of distortions?

    That is done because computer's are not able to identify the word and cannot gain access. Incedentally, this same method is now being used to digitize the Library of Congress's collection, using CAPTCHA, since it is filled with words that computers cannot "read".

    So if Face Book flags you as a bot, it could simply ask you to type in one of these words before you make your next entry.

    Just an idea.

  • Report this Comment On July 18, 2009, at 4:11 PM, redgold46 wrote:

    I feel you pain (in the ass). The first time I was banned it lasted 4 days and it was because I posted too many comments in what they call a short period of time. I was dumbfounded. I am a writer also and I give good words-in rapid fire succession but I feel that unless someone personally complains about you by name then there should not be this auto-censorship on FB.

    It was pointed out to me that kids in their 20's are not brought up on actual written communication - they text. They text with abbreviations and emoticons. Many of us do not-we actually remember writing letters in long hand and placing a stamp on the envelope and putting it in a mail box. Try to find a freestanding mail box in Tampa Florida.

    Yesterday I was doling out advice and empathy as I do with friends on and off all day. I posted 3 status updates, I posted to a cause and posted a thank you for someone who signed my cause petition. I went to the wall of a friend having a birthday and before I could hit share a warning came up-I was flabbergasted.

    I agree with you this is not the way to treat your customers and I do click on the ads of advertisers and I think I may start writing those advertisers down and notifying them that I won't use their products or services when they choose to advertise them on the Nazi social network known as Facebook.

    This time I laughed-all my friends know my real email address and my cell-I can use flickr, twitter and others-facebook has lost it's appeal not only for me but many of my friends who have pulled way back.

    Facebook you need a face lift- you need to realize your audience is comprised of many different ages and you need to appeal to all of them. Not only that but you need a lift in your ethical and moral values and come up with a better way other than to make people miserable.

    I picture an evil troll laughing everytime someone gets banned-and I bet employees of Facebook have problems admitting they work there because there are so many unhappy former users.

  • Report this Comment On July 18, 2009, at 8:46 PM, redgold46 wrote:

    BTW I was "allowed" back a 24 hour ban but I have decided I will answer people's statuses in my own status update there by passing the counting mechanism of commenting there is always a way-middle finger facebook!

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