We're 20+ years into the Internet and we've all probably been there at some point. Some company, somewhere, has screwed you over and you are furious to the point of seeing red. You could just call them to complain, but you can't get past the automated answering system to a real person. You could go down to the store, except there isn't one anymore ... Amazon put them out of business years ago. So, being the Internet-savvy individual1
you are; you decide I'll show them
and go fire up the workstation to prepare to deliver your digital fury far and wide across the world. I just have two words for you:
Complaining about a company on the Internet, while simple enough to do via a web site you create for the purpose (a "suck site") or through the various forms of social media, can actually be a fairly risky operation with real-life consequences that could potentially stick with you for years. This article aims to give you a high-level overview of some of the risks you face when you vent your digital spleen and will also provide some pointers for complaining in a more constructive and effective way. While there is an art to complaining online
, this article isn't it2
While my wife would certainly grant me the label of "professional complainer" as well as confer upon me the status of "highly annoying," I doubt that what she is perceiving3
is the same thing as what this article is addressing. My more relevant qualifications are that I've been on both sides of this issue, having complained about companies on the Internet since I had the ability to publish my own sites, and having worked with a brand to rehabilitate their online reputation and stop further attacks.
So You Want To Set Up A "[company] Sucks" Web Site. What Do You Need To Know?
The first thing you need to know about publishing a suck site is that from a technical standpoint, it's extremely easy to do. Modern self-publishing sites like wordpress.com, Tumblr, Blogspot and others have proliferated in recent years and grant even the most non-technical of users the ability to create a web presence. That you've decide to use this power to kvetch4
says volumes about you, but this is an article about complaining and not personality disorders. So from a technical standpoint, getting a platform isn't particularly difficult.
But is setting up a suck site legal?
The answer to this is surprisingly complex and a lot of it depends on where you live and where you publish. For those of us in the United States, the answer is "generally, yes" in the sense that you will not be violating any criminal laws but there are limits that are still be litigated and case law continues to develop as scenarios present themselves5
. In regards to civil law, we'll get into this in a little more detail later. However, outside of the United States the laws regulating free/protected modes of speech vary considerably from country to country and I would STRONGLY
urge you to research the applicable laws in your country before you go to publish anything. What is okay to say in the USA may be grounds for a lawsuit in the UK and could conceivably get you arrested in a more totalitarian state6
So let's assume you are in a jurisdiction that allows the publication of the suck site. What other potential pitfalls await you? From experience, the following are the big issues to avoid:
- Generally speaking, the person setting up the suck site not only is not a professional web developer, their anger with the target of the suck site clouds whatever design sense they do have and you end up with completely awful sites. These sites make the complainer look like a crazy person and, more importantly, fail to deliver the intended message to the public.
- Speaking of getting the message out to the public: you also need to know more than a little about how search engines rank sites if you plan on getting this thing seen by anyone outside of your immediate family. People who lack experience designing web sites also tend to lack SEO knowledge and techniques and, as a result, a whole lot of effort goes to waste when Google puts the site on page 145 of 150 in the results.
- To complain effectively, you can't be anonymous. Anonymous suck sites are no better than anonymous comment trolls. So you have to be very prepared to be associated with the suck site for the rest of your professional life. Remember, the first thing any hiring manager does is Google your name ... is this really what you want them to find?
- The person setting up the suck site is also not a lawyer and fails to understand even the basics of either libel or copyright law. The former is usually not a big issue7, it's the latter that gets people in trouble because...
Hey! Where Did My Site Go? I Swear It Was Just Here A Minute Ago...
Well congratulations, Sparky. You managed to get the company's attention with your amateurish attempt. Unfortunately for you, you used the company's logo, copied text from their web site, posted pictures of employees, and generally used all sorts of other materials that made taking down your site a simple operation. A lawyer for the company sent a letter to your hosting provider and your site disappeared. The reason they can do that is because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)8
. When you set up a suck site, the urge to use copyrighted material from the target company (logo, materials, etc.) is nearly overwhelming but that use opens the door to a DMCA takedown because you may be violating copyrights. Since ISPs are obligated to take the material down while the matter is adjudicated, it's a quick and cheap way for the target to defend itself from an attack site. While I can already hear you screaming "fair use" in response to this, the other fact of suck sites is the originator of the suck site also has no clue what "Fair Use" really means and how it gets applied in cases like this9
So How Do I Keep A Site Online?
Aside from the stunningly obvious move of not using any copyrighted material on your suck site? The easiest thing to do is host with an overseas ISP that isn't subject to the DMCA (basically, any ISP not in the USA), has a law similar to the DMCA, or provides reciprocity for DMCA takedown notices despite not being in the USA. That will keep a site up and running in the face of an aggressive response but this approach has limitations. If the ISP uses a Content Delivery Network and has servers located anywhere in the USA, they may be subject to the DMCA. Many reputable ISPs will honor a takedown even without being subject to the DMCA specifically. You should do your research on this point before opening a hosting account. Or, you know, don't use the copyrighted materials at all10
What Else Should I Know?
Note that all of the above is assuming the language of the suck site is relatively tame. Again, because people's minds are clouded by anger, that will frequently spill over in the language used on the site and lines between complaining and threatening get blurred or crossed entirely. If/when that happens, you could be in a for a lot of trouble as this is when the police may get involved or the company decides to sue you. Unless you have exceptionally deep pockets, either scenario should be considered a "worst-case" for you as defending yourself from legal challenges can be ruinously expensive for an individual. Companies tend to be able to absorb legal fees and also tend to have umbrella policies to protect them in case of a judgment in a counter-suit by you. It's unlikely you would be able to match the resources of even a small company if things get to that point. So mind your manners and don't let it get to that point.
I Thought There Was Supposed To Be Constructive Advice In This Article Somewhere?
Alright, alright. By now, you should be somewhat soured on the idea of attempting to self-publish a web site attacking a company. It's risky on several levels, hard to get your message out effectively unless you have a particular set of skills, acquired over a long career11
, and even if you do managed to get it seen it's fairly simple for an aggressive company to take it down.
You would be far better off airing your complaint in a respectful manner on social media channels
where the company has a presence and let them address it (or not) before you take further action.
For companies that know and care about social media, this is almost always the best strategy as their social media teams live in mortal fear of a well-networked person making a valid complaint. Twitter is a fantastic venue for this as complaints can spread like lightening via retweets and hashtags and that can give you an outsized voice. Additionally, you keep control over your Tweets and can get straight to the brand via a mention. While Facebook also provides a good platform for complaining, just don't make the mistake of posting on the company's page/wall as they control that post's visibility. Keep it on your own wall and use the autocomplete feature to ping the brand's account. Just make sure you loosen your privacy settings on that post so the public can see it.
Remember that the key to a good social offensive is that you have to have a decently sized network and also a history of really using the social mediums you are complaining on. Companies will absolutely treat a Twitter user with an egg avatar, two prior tweets and 10 followers differently from someone who tweets every day and has several hundred or more followers. The former can be safely ignored while the latter can usually expect some form of contact and an invitation to engage. This holds true across the spectrum ... if your Facebook friends list consists of your cat and your mom, the odds on being ignored increase dramatically. Someone with an extended network of hundreds of friends and potentially thousands of friends of friends gets ignored at the company's peril.
If the company is not active on social media (or in addition to your own social strategy), your best strategy is to hit them where they live and leverage sites like Yelp, Amazon, and Google Places, and other review-based venues to spread your tale of woe and neglect. Reviews are harder to ignore than a lone-wolf web site ranting on a server in some country somewhere or a small-network social media campaign and has the added advantage of allowing you to retain slightly more anonymity as you can generally hide behind a username while still remaining able to be contacted. Reviews, especially those on Yelp and Amazon, have a potential to go viral due to the sizes of those communities and the almost pathological desire to promote a bon mot when one is seen. A well-written, funny, scathing complaint posted as a review will be shared, draw attention in other venues, and eventually get to the company via some method even if they don't normally pay attention.
But What If The Company Really Doesn't Pay Attention To Any Of That Ever?
Then you are unlikely to get a response from the company and will have to derive your sense of satisfaction from other sources12
. Still and all, you may have reached enough people to put a small dent in the customer base and that's not nothing.
Hey, They Want To Talk To Me! How Should I Handle The Conversation?
If you somehow manage to get the ear of someone at the company, then the time for vitriol and histrionics is at an end. You need to reply promptly, calmly and respectfully tell them why you have beef and see what they are willing to do to fix it. If they aren't willing to do anything, you go back the previous steps of leaving bad reviews and influencing your personal circles to not use their products or services. Most rational companies realize that they don't just lose you
as a customer, but potentially your whole network and for that reason alone you should be able to reach a compromise.
If you seeking some form of redress, be realistic. You can't demand that someone be fired or get free whatever for the rest of your life or any other such ridiculousness. The company may be convinced to refund you, provide an alternative to a refund commensurate with the damage or inconvenience you suffered but that's kind of it. Demanding anything above and beyond that ought to be handled through the legal system.
My Issue Was Resolved. Now What?
If this wasn't discussed explicitly with the company representative, you are technically free to leave all your work online and visible to others. However, I have found that it's a good social engineering practice to reward desired behaviors when I get them. When a company goes the extra mile to respond to your complaints and also fixes whatever is wrong, you should either remove the complaints or, especially in the case of review sites, edit the post to provide a positive update and an improved rating if applicable. We want to train company reps to respond to us and be willing to work with us. So there has to be a little give and take in this process.
Well, you've made it to the end. Thank you for reading and if you found this useful13
then please locate the voting links and give me a yes vote. If you can't find the voting links, file a complaint.
Please sound off in the comments section, too. I would love to hear your complaint stories, both victories and defeats. Good luck and happy complaining.
(1) Some of us more than others, naturally.
(2) You are, of course, free to complain about this in the comments below.
(3) Wrongly, mind you.
(4) Oh, just Google it.
(5) I am NOT a lawyer (or doctor, or engineer, or underwater basket weaver). I Googled for a while and found all sorts of applicable cases, appeals, and contradictions.
(6) So if that North Korean company messed up your order, just let it go, dude. Move on.
(7) Again, laws vary from country to country. Be aware, take care.
(8) I know, Google is hard. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Millennium_Copyright_Act
(9) I could have linked all of these inline, but just once I really wanted to write like Pratchett
(10) Duh. The More You Know
(11) If Liam Neeson contacts you to complain, I STRONGLY recommend you listen and resolve his issues. Seriously...you don't want him coming after you or your company. Dude is hardcore and has some serious anger management issues. Probably can ignore Adam Sandler, though.
(12) No, not THOSE sources. This is a family web site, sheesh.
(13) Or entertaining. I'm not picky and I won't judge.