Did you hear about the big Applebee’s flap over social media and tipping? Yesterday on NPR, someone was saying that it’s such a big deal that it will likely be remembered one day by historians of business and marketing as on the same level as Tylenol’s poisoned pills story. Conor Friedersdorf gives you the story here:
After Friday services at a St. Louis church, Pastor Alois Bell, 37, headed to a local Applebee’s for dinner. Joined by members of her congregation, she ate in a party of ten. What did she order? The Classic Clubhouse Grille? The Sizzling N’Awlins Skillet? The Smoking Gun doesn’t include that detail in its version of events. What we do know is that separate checks came, each noting that an automatic 18 percent tip had been added, per the usual policy for parties of 6 or more.
That’s when Pastor Bell made a mistake. Upset by the mandatory tip, she took the credit card receipt, crossed out the gratuity, wrote a zero in its place, and appended a note: “I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?”
The waitress, who presumably doesn’t see her tips as a charitable grant, showed the receipt to a co-worker, whose sympathetic commiseration would’ve ended the matter in a prior era. But the co-worker photographed the receipt and shared it online, where it went viral. Before long, Pastor Bell, had been outed and subject to all the blowback you’d expect from the digital masses. “My heart is really broken,” she said. “I’ve brought embarrassment to my church and ministry.”
She called her actions a “lapse in my judgment and character,” adding that it had been blown out of proportion by her online attackers. Imagine how unnerving it would feel to be an unsavvy Internet user suddenly subject to the profane fury of the least restrained Reddit users. Spend enough time on the Web and you grow accustom to extreme vitriol. Being initiated all at once with numerous violent, profane insults directed at you personally? That’s tough medicine. Mobs of digital vigilantes are as prone to excesses as their analog analogs, which we discourage.
It’s nevertheless hypocritical for Pastor Bell to plead understanding and forgiveness for a lapse in judgement even as she contacted Applebee’s management, which she reportedly did, and asked that the employees responsible for the appearance of the receipt on the Internet be fired.
Applebee’s fired one of the waitresses. I can’t see that it had any other choice. No business can tolerate its employees putting the private information of its customers on the web. Still, my sympathies are very much with the server, though it is scary to think about how the digital mob can menace an individual who may have made an indefensible lapse in judgment, as Pastor Bell did. Conor thinks that while the server did wrong in this instance, the prospect of public shaming for mistreating service personnel is a positive thing overall:
The average restaurant patron is certainly more attuned to their grievances than in previous eras, precisely because industry folks are relatively savvy communicators in the digital realm — much more so than, say, longtime manufacturing-line employees in the Rust Belt, whose take on their job interactions are seldom communicated in their own words to a sympathetic public.
As service industry jobs make up an increasingly large proportion of the American workforce, organized labor has made unionizing them a priority. Economist Tyler Cowen explains why he doesn’t think that push will be successful. Either way, I expect that service industry workers are going to wrest more prestige from the culture than they’ve previously enjoyed, in part because we increasingly view the work done by baristas and craft cocktail bartenders as skilled, but also because folks who’ve never worked as a server in a restaurant or a hotel maid are increasingly exposed to the shockingly shitty behavior folks in those positions must sometimes endure.
The general rule that they ought not expose customers to Internet ridicule is sound and necessary. Still, a part of me hopes that the degree of transparency brought by technology both keeps customers on better behavior and spares employees termination in instances when the behavior they expose is clearly indefensible. Maybe 10 years from now, Applebee’s suspends that waitress for a week rather than firing her. Better yet, maybe the customer of tomorrow thinks twice before scrawling entitled screeds on her receipt, and the whole thing is avoided.
I see where he’s coming from, but locate myself a bit to the other side of him, because I think mobs, digital and otherwise, are more to be feared and loathed than admired and encouraged.
Ah, since I started writing this post, I looked in to see if Conor had done a follow-up (the linked article appeared last week; I’ve had this unfinished post in my queue since then). Sure enough, he’s got one up today lamenting the mob-like behavior of the mob, which has gone berserk on Applebee’s. Conor says it’s going to end badly for service personnel. Excerpt:
The Internet often brings people together to do good. The Web helped stop SOPA. It brought us the “It Gets Better” campaign. People have come together for all sorts of worthy charitable causes. And there are all sorts of online challenges to corporate behavior that I would celebrate.
But the anti-Applebee’s rage is arbitrary and out of all proportion to the events that transpired, and that’s problematic for reasons that transcend unfairness to Applebee’s, a chain that could disappear tomorrow without me minding. The extraordinary anger being generated has more to do with the incident’s viralness than the magnitude of the company’s bad behavior. As a result, corporations across America aren’t thinking, “We’d better avoid perpetrating really bad behavior,” they’re thinking, “We’d better avoid any situation that involves our company getting viral publicity.”
It isn’t difficult to see where that leads.
Companies will increasingly fear unpredictable digital mobs, and they’ll respond by putting increasingly draconian restrictions on the ability of their employees to use social media. The “creative class” will mostly retain their ability to send Tweets, post to Instagram, and update Facebook. But folks who occupy lower rungs of the employment ladder and wield proportionately less influence will be forced to abide by rule books that err on the side of stifling employee freedom of expression to minimize the potential risk of any public relations nightmares.