Monday, March 23, 2015

I Started A Joke That Started The Whole World Crying

By: Ben Johnson

I felt like bitching and moaning about AT&T. That’s how it started. There was a minor problem with my cell phone autopay, and my bill wasn’t going through. So I called a service rep to have them fix it, and the service rep told me that I could avoid having to call a service rep ever again if I’d just download the “MyATT” app and manage my own account on it. It made me upset in the way that I am always upset whenever the thought occurs to me that all corporations, everywhere, especially ones the size of AT&T, are constantly thinking of new ways to make all of us work for them instead of the other way around.  

I’ve been to an AT&T call center. I spent two weeks back in 2006 doing goofy “improv-based” corporate training sessions at a call center out in the suburbs of San Diego. An AT&T call center is a sad place in most of the ways you’d expect. The outside is a large hot parking lot full of various not very good model cars with various bumper stickers about honor roll students and Jesus and sloganeering from various masculine-sounding gearhead clubs and corporations which boil down to Not Having Fear, overflowing outdoor ashtrays with the sand long gone, utilitarian striped reflective glass buildings designed with two 135 degree angles at the corners rather than one 90 degree angle, the architecture’s only reluctant concession to the whimsical nature of the humans which regrettably must inhabit it. And the inside, all bright fluorescent lighting and gleaming linoleum and gray cubicles with troll dolls and giveaway AT&T stress balls and big gulp cups full of whatever fuel is needed for 9 straight hours of sitting and talking to whiney people. The break room a gallery of thousand yard stares, decorated with updates about Pam’s son and something about time sheets featuring a clip art stick man with a puzzled question hanging over his head. You know, the necessary monetary feeding tube of the current brain dead life support incarnation of the American Dream.

Having their lives thus humanized by visiting their doorstep, I get feelings for call center reps whenever I notice something like AT&T’s apparent requirement that they tell all customers, day in and day out, via a plug for the MyATT app, about their looming obsolescence. These people have to breathe that amount of atmospheric disrespect in and out for every shift they work in every working day of their lives, and had to even before some hot shot came up with the MyATT app, but now as ever even more so, increasingly until they burst of it. "Did you know you could further deleverage any negotiating power I might have with my employer? It's as simple as a click!" and on to the next caller, and on and on until today's double shift is over and my dad's leg surgery is a little closer to paid off. That kind of a thing.
So this particular customer service experience occurring on a Saturday when I was not busy, and due to the fact that I am doing just fine and therefore all of my fairly large supply of rage is almost totally impotent, I sat and tweeted some boilerplate snarky anticorporate vitriol. That’s when the @ATTCares Twitter Account stepped in.

It turns out that having a @BUSINESSNAMECares Twitter account is a thing that some companies are trying these days. Basically what they do is Twitter search themselves, apologize, and offer help. Regardless of context. Any time anybody mentions the company by name.

I don’t know how something like this happens. Probably some mixture of outsourcing to non-English-speaking countries, mandating a script, underfunding, undersupporting, overworking, undervaluing a staff, and resultant or just accidental rank incompetence of a latent, organizational sort. In the above exchange we witness a large computer manufacturer and retailer just assuming, probably more accurately than not, that the most prudent action is to immediately apologize for having done something wrong any time their name is mentioned. "We hear your frustration." Do they, though? Do they really? Who is “they” anyway? Probably a suit in a Wall Street office being frantically operated by a team of mice.

The irony is that whoever’s at the switch at @ATTCares is employed in just as tenuous a manner by just exactly the same corporation as the call center employees whose plight I had been so deeply moved by as to post a dumb thing on Twitter. @ATTCares, as a Twitter account, does not generate revenue, and its effects on customer service perceptions in the marketplace are measurable but not demonstrable, because social media is nothing but screaming, hissing noise in a way which corporations, repeatedly, can’t quite understand. If you can measure it, it’s not noise, they reason. Corporations feel the same way about money, although a huge portion of that is noise as well. All they know is Bill Gates is worth $80 billion dollars and One Direction is trending. If they ever figure out how little either of those things actually mean, the music’s turning off and the poor sucker pulling the levers at @ATTCares is going to sit on an invisible chair.

But to some extent, as some people keep saying, we’re all brands now. So I decided to launch my own @itisbenjoCARES Twitter handle, on the logic that this would free up my regular twitter account to behave as rapaciously and as disrespectfully of basic human dignities as a large multinational corporation.

It went okay. @itisbenjoCARES was at least responsive to complaints. 

The complaints were documented. There was a visible display of some noncommittal (in a legal sense) contrition which hinted at a larger organizational accountability. It might only fool an idiot, but you can’t aim too high with these things.

This is the kind of general service perception traction I was hoping to get with the @itisbenjoCARES Twitter Account. Unfortunately, this uptick in general public goodwill towards my Twitter brand could not demonstrably offset the considerable cost of running the project. There was some organizational turbulence within the @itisbenjo brand which leaked out into the public sphere, as happens sometimes when there is sufficient distrust between management and labor.

Of course I was paying that money to myself (under the table, without any documentation), and also there is no such person as Erica, but I figure the other guy doesn't need to know that. The essential secret of the labor marketplace is that you're only worth as much as you have the power to negotiate for, and I am not above pulling out all the stops against myself whenever my theoretical livelihood is at stake.

Well, guess who won THAT little argument. It was management. Rather than scrap all the perception momentum generated by @itisbenjoCARES, which at that point had swelled to 7 followers, including at least one porn bot, I instead launched @itisbnjoFINANCE with the idea that it might be more successful on the revenue side. Twitter only allows 15 characters for a handle title, but nobody noticed the missing "E" in "itisbnjoFINANCE," and if they had I figured it could stand for "E-commerce" or something buzzy like that.

Unfortunately, my social media staff, consisting of me, was not as well versed in finance as they were in customer service. But they (meaning me) soldiered on gamely nonetheless, opting for a "shotgun" approach to Finance Twitter wherein tweet volume was emphasized at the possible (?) expense of tweet quality.

This yielded mixed results, but did generate some degree of positive response among several actual-seeming Twitter users in the actual-seeming Twitter Finance community. For example, after Tweeting several relevant finance based hashtags at the Irish embassy Twitter account on St. Patrick's Day, the surely existent Finance Twitter Press took notice.

This seemed like success, but I did not want to rest on my laurels. Also I had not actually seen dime one yet. I decided to pivot my Twitter branding subsidiary yet again to a potentially more high yield market. Global finance is nice and all, in theory, but the tech sector offers higher returns. I figure people invest millions and millions of dollars in various tech startups every single day without ever knowing what the hell they are actually doing or why. I wanted to get the @itisbenjo brand at the forefront of THAT market, because I had a hunch that not knowing anything at all about what I might be saying would be less of a hindrance in the tech market. Boy was I right. Enter @itisbenjoTECH.

Just take a look at that murderer's row of extremely important and quite real Tech Twitter luminaries. Flexsquare? Gav L. Brining?  Tech Law? The "Data Is Beautiful" subreddit? Those are presumably some heavy hitters in the world of technology, for all I know. It became immediately clear that @itisbenjoTECH was the grown up big boy of @itisbenjo twitter subsidiaries. You know how you're not supposed to choose a favorite child, right? Well, @itisbenjoTECH was by far my favorite child. It delivered the goods time after time. So many great favs and retweets and list adds and follows. So much connectivity. Such immense market presence.

Unfortunately, this led to a conundrum all too common within the world of large brands, which is that the subsidiary was in apparent danger of outstripping the original brand's popularity. I found myself more and more dedicated to tweeting about #data and #innovation as @itisbenjoTECH and less and less capable of tweeting about my actual human farts I was smelling as @itisbenjo, and that's not good. You don't want to lose sight of who you are in this world, even at the price of raging success in the tech sector as represented by the accounts on twitter who really like it when you say something, anything, about #bigdata.

And so I decided to discontinue @itisbenjoTECH. But what happened next, as they say, shocked me. I found myself emotionally attached. Like actually. Like in real life. Like I am not being sarcastic whatsoever right now. I became emotionally attached to a fake twitter handle. It was just so perfect, and could have kept going forever, and did not want to die or stop, and did not know what was happening to it, that it would become a dead husk of data floating out into the horizon of the internet like some kind of a @FinanceWeekly. It was like a call center employee of my own, just as doomed, except also, tragically, unaware of its fate, whereas Fran at AT&T knows she can always call up her creep brother an law and get a job at the Dress Barn to tide her over for a couple of months if things at AT&T ever head south. No, with @itisbenjoTECH we were talking about an actual, or at least digital, death. Of a joke rather than a person, true, but a joke that is especially dear to me.

I tweeted the @itisbenjoTECH death throes, and found them endearing and touching and sad.

Little guy fought like hell, and loved me, and loved to tweet about #bigdata, until the very end. Some of those last tweets were still being favorited and retweeted by very important tech business insiders such as Gaultier Laperche (Co-founder of OctoBat, skiing is his favorite side activity) and Outwit Consulting. It was, and again my tongue is nowhere near my cheek on this, actually heartbreaking. The joke did not want to die. The joke wanted to keep going forever, and the universe, as represented by the tech bots of Non-Twitter wanted that for the joke I made as well.

But I am a human. I cannot continue to be a bot on Twitter who blasts nonsense about tech-related things out into the ether for other bots to fav and enjoy. That is death, of a kind, for me. And I accept that to live I must accept death. Both my own, and my fake Twitter subsidiary's.

The last tweet actually made me cry. My own actual face tears:

R.I.P. @itisbenjoTECH. You were a very good joke. And I think you had a point. I know I did not want you to end. No man can speak any higher of a joke than that.

The next time I find myself getting worked up about some shitty thing AT&T is doing to its employees, I can remind myself that one day AT&T too will die, and its death will be final, and infinite, and more so because it, a corporation with no thoughts or feelings of its own, will never know it is dying, and will never know it is dead, and thus will never enjoy its existence. It will be like a confused animal not knowing why its body is stopping, and not a nice animal either, and nobody will mourn it. Not like I will mourn this joke I started. Not like the AT&T employees who have to tell me about an app I can get to displace them will be mourned when they go. That's what we get, us people here being sucked dry by these entities. We get to be people. We get to be cared for. When we die nobody's going to fight over our assets. They're just going to cry.