Earth, November 2013: it’s a very different world compared to 2005 and 2006, when the Xbox 360 and the PS3 were launched. At that time social media was much less widespread and had a much smaller reach. The percentage of those connected and sharing their experiences and problems on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube was much, much lower.
Today people, and especially gamers that have always been ahead of the times in adopting technology, live half in the real world and half in the cyberspace, getting nearer and nearer to the idea of Cyberpunk‘s netrunners. When I achieve something important, one of my first thoughts is to share it with my friends from all over the world on Twitter. When I have a problem, one of the first outlets where I direct my complaints is the internet. That’s just the kind of world we live in nowadays.
That kind of world, where everyone’s reach and power of communication has been multiplied a hundredfold over the past few years, brings positive and negative effects.
Let’s start with the good news: in the big picture of communication and marketing we’re not just receivers, passive objects thatcorporations consider only as potential buyers and walking wallets that exist only to be bombarded by one-way marketing messages over the media.
Social media gives anyone the possibility to bounce back a different message, to be opinion leader, even to fight back against the power of the big companies that often forget about the fact that they’re dealing with people.
Eight years ago if you had a problem with a new console, you had very few options besides calling support, putting up with an often dismissive customer service representative and hope for the best. Today if the problem is big enough and communicated well enough, you have the power to get the attention of thousands and possibly cause a large impact on the public image of a company, resulting in the fact that corporations have now become a lot more aware of the importance of customer satisfaction.
The case of Andre “Moonlightswami” Weingarten is pretty emblematic. He got an Xbox One early and Microsoft banned the console to prevent him from spreading further classified information despite the fact that he had no real fault on the issue, having purchased the hardware regularly.
Andre created a big hubbub over social media, stating his case with a clear message and receiving the support of thousands. The day after he was on the phone with Xbox Live’s Director of Programming Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb, that offered “generous” compensation for his troubles and his silence.
Other executives from both Microsoft and Sony are equally reachable, and will equally scramble to put out fires as soon as they can, because they know that on today’s social media a single flame can cause a large explosion if left unattended.
This is definitely a good thing. Corporations have lived in relative invulnerability for too long, with costly and bothersome lawsuits being the only weapon in the hand of customers to protect their often abused rights. Now social media is another weapon, often even more powerful because damage to a company’s image can be more clipping than a hit to its finances.
Social media has given us the power to keep corporations with a financial power that completely overwhelms ours on their toes, and that power is only going to get bigger and bigger.
On the other hand, there’s also a more subtle but equally impactful negative effect to social media: we’ve been seeing it in the past few days with the launch of PS4, and we’ll most probably see it continue across the launch of Xbox One and over the early lifetime of both consoles.
Social media takes perspective away and gives us a negatively distorted vision of reality.
Over the past few days there has been a relatively relevant number of complaints about bricked and dead on arrival PS4 units appearing on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube and more.
When the Xbox One will launch we’re probably going to see it happen there as well. It might be more or less widespread, but it’s going to happen and it’s pretty much inevitable. It’s in the nature of electronics and manufacturing to have a failure rate. No manufacturing process will ever be perfect, and no piece of technology will ever be immune from flaws, mishandling and other mishaps that can happen to what are rather delicate constructs.
When a highly anticipated console that costed you 4-500 bucks breaks or fails to work completely, there are very high chances that, unless you don’t have an internet access (and in that case you wouldn’t be reading this) your first thought will be to post about it on the internet. Very possibly even before you actually call customer support to get the problem fixed. It’s just the nature of the beast, and of this connected world we live in. I sure know that’s what I’d do, and there’s really nothing wrong with it.
The problem is much beyond the single complaint of a single user over Twitter or Facebook, and resides in the fact that social media instantly makes the volume of such complaints look a lot bigger than it really is. Perspective is removed due to the broad reach achieved by what we say over the web.
When they see 100 different complaints about a bricked console, many will start thinking that there’s a widespread problem. When those complaints become 200, it’s instinctive and natural to feel that someone really botched its manufacturing processes. When they become 500 or more it’s difficult not to wonder if there has been an unmitigated disaster similar or worse to the Xbox 360′s red ring of death.
That’s made even more extreme because, unless directly asked, people are much more likely to “take it to Twitter” if they have something to complain about than if they’re satisfied about a product.
Then there’s the amplifying effects journalistic media outlets have on the issue. It’s controversial, and many have a vested interest in making it seem as big as possible, because controversy directly translates into pageviews, and pageviews directly turn into money, which is why some sites are scrambling to report on as many malfunction cases as they can find.
If you add up the number of complaints to social media visibility and multiply it by the journalistic media loudspeaker, perspective completely goes down the drain and molehills turn into many Everest.
Let’s bring some perspective back into the issue by doing some simple math.
Let’s say that Sony sold 500,000 PS4 units since launch. It’s an extremely conservative estimate, as the company announced that it had a million pre-orders back in August, and the number has inevitably inflated since then, without even counting all the consoles that have been sold on day one, those that have been given away to press and contest winners and so forth.
Sony itself mentioned that their estimate of faulty hardware is 0.4% which is a very acceptable ratio for the launch of a new console, even counting the fact that hardware is damaged due to mishandling during shipping more than many would think (which is why I almost never order online, mind you, after receiving a $400 video card with the box completely smashed, I think twice before visiting the online page of that retailer again).
Using that total number and percentage, the amount of non functional PS4 units out in the wild would be 2.000.
Now let’s say that only 30% of those receiving a faulty or damaged console actually goes to complain online (even here we’re talking about a rather conservative estimate given how accessible social media is for this kind of complaints), and the result is 600 (rightfully) dissatisfied customers popping up on the net, documenting an equal number of bricked consoles.
That, of course, doesn’t even take in consideration the number of false positives due to trolling and attention seeking (and there’s plenty of those as well), but let’s consider those 600 as fully valid and legit complaints.
The not so fun part is that it’s only going to get worse as more units are sold. If Sony really manages to sell their five million units target before March the 31st, using the same equation we’re going to see a staggering 6,000 complaints generated by 20,000 bricked consoles plastered all over Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and similar outlets.
It’s hard not to be impressed by seeing that kind of numbers (even just the initial 600, let alone 6,000) online, and it’s hard not to think that we’re looking at a very widespread problem of potentially calamitous proportions, despite the fact that the number has been generated by a very much acceptable dead on arrival ratio in the field of consumer electronics with the launch of a new model of hardware.
Ultimately this problem is hard to solve. I can churn out numbers and empirical calculations all day, but the only one that can give back some much needed perspective to this scenario is you, by trying to compare the number of cases you see with the actual number of consoles out in the wild.
Of course this doesn’t mean that a problem does not exist (we really have no way to judge), but whether it does or not, we won’t learn it from social media.
Social media gave us the power to move mountains, keeping on their toes corporations that just a few years ago simply didn’t give us the light of day. That’s great, and hopefully that power will continue to increase over time, engraving even more deeply the value of customer satisfaction in the collective brains of the companies that sell us the products we play with.
Unfortunately social media also turns every molehill into a mountain. Don’t get me wrong: it’s really annoying when that molehill pops up right into your rose garden, but it’s still not a mountain.