Beer and Trolls: Swimming Against the Social Media Tide

Apr 24, 2018

When asked about the sort of town or village they would like to live in, people in the UK are likely to put good schools, transport links, and local shops near the top of the list. For many, a decent pub is also pretty important – whether that might be the historic village inn, with a thatched roof and cozy atmosphere, or the “local” at the end of the road.

In recent decades, facing difficult times, pubs in the UK have had a bit of a makeover, with improved opening hours, better food offerings, and more family-friendly settings. One of the biggest disruptors has been J D Wetherspoon, the pub chain founded in 1979 by entrepreneur Tim Martin. “Spoons,” as it is known, is famous for taking over and converting unconventional buildings. Theatres, cinemas, banks, post offices, and even a swimming pool, have been turned into Wetherspoon’s pubs. Now with over 900 outlets, the chain attracts a varied clientele, offering long opening hours, and keenly priced food and drink.

In April, the company caused a stir by announcing that it had decided to close down Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media accounts for all its individual pubs as well as for the company’s head office. Going forward, the company intended to release news stories and info about upcoming events only via the main company website, and in their printed magazine. Instead of using social media, customers were urged to send feedback to their local pub, or through the website.

Martin told the BBC that he was concerned that social media had sidetracked pub managers from "the real job of serving customers…I don't believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever." He also expressed concern about the addictive nature of social media: “people who aren’t on social media wish that their friends weren’t either, because they seem to be obsessed by it – and people who are on it feel that … they’re addicted.”

A company spokesman told Sky News: "We've noticed a lot of MPs get trolled and some receive some nasty comments and the company doesn't like what's going on – we don't like the general climate of social media."

Predictably, given the wide-ranging explanations given by the company, the announcement set off a storm of debate and speculation. Commentators variously put the decision down to cost-cutting, a publicity stunt, a way to stifle poor customer reviews, or a diversionary tactic (Martin is a prominent Brexit supporter).

That said, it’s certainly possible to believe that there is some sound thinking behind the decision. Most of the 900 outlets had their own social media presence, maintained at the local level, and with fairly small numbers of followers. Without significant investment of time and money, that sort of approach risks being half-hearted and inconsistent.

Doing away with transparent customer feedback channels, however, runs the risk of driving poor reviews elsewhere.

But there are other approaches to the problem of unbridled negativity and troll-like behavior. In the face of relentless trolling, some news media outlets have chosen to disable comments altogether. Like many other news media sites, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) was faced with the problem of how best to deal with readers’ comments. The NRKbeta team, the organization’s “sandbox for tech and new media”, came up with the idea of making would-be commenters answer a short quiz to test their understanding of the article they had just read, before being allowed to post a comment. They created the quiz in just a few hours using a WordPress plugin and the tool was enabled on stories, which it was thought could encourage “gloomy” comments.

When it debuted in February last year, the idea was widely praised around the world. Six months in, Ståle Grut of the NRKbeta team looked back to assess how effective the experiment had been.

The quiz seemed to dissuade people who only wanted to leave short comments, said Grut, and to favor “the most eager with the most time on their hands.” However, many readers seemed to treat the quiz as a game, to test how much they remembered, without then going on to add any comments.  

It goes against all received wisdom to withdraw completely from social media channels, like Wetherspoon’s, or to increase friction for digital consumers like NRK. Time will tell whether either approach bears fruit and is replicated elsewhere. It seems certain, however, that as social media face increased scrutiny, more brands and content owners will start to swim against the tide.  

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