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This article originally appeared on, but it seems to have been lost during a redesign - which is weird, as my other work for the site still lives on. In any case, it's saved here for posterity.

In a week where a 17-year old is arrested for tweeting first and thinking later, it’s safe to say we know human beings have limitations: we’re frequently grumpy, insulting and spontaneously angry. So why do we expect public figures and companies to effortlessly rise above their instincts?

I remember hearing Gyles Brandreth talking about his time as an MP, and commenting about how deeply members of parliament loathe the average voter, especially during election canvassing time. He recalled making nice with people he’d normally go out of his way to avoid, and nod along passively as they discussed matters they barely understood with infuriating passion. Of course, given Mr Brandreth lost his seat in 1997, he only had to endure two campaigns (and only one successful), and was telling the story in his usual flamboyantly embellished style.

Still, it would be amazing if this wasn’t true of all politicians on some level: they are only human, and as humans we don’t half spend a lot of time silently bemoaning half-wits in our heads. But politicians aren’t the only ones that common wisdom dictates must be super-humanly pleasant. Take a look at any company’s Facebook page, and you’ll invariably see a bunch of entitled, rude and pushy consumers threatening to withdraw their custom over the mildest offence. I’ve seen 'fans' moaning about late deliveries, no money off coupons and even not winning a competition as if they’d just had a company badmouth their mothers.

This is universally met with friendly platitudes from the company, asking for more details to help (or at least soothing words to placate in the case of competitions), showing all the patience of Job. This is enabling behaviour, creating more whiners hoping for freebies, or just some attention: a kind of social media Münchhausen syndrome. Counter intuitively, the ‘nicer’ the brand, the more rude their customers seem to be. The squeaky wheel gets the grease for sure, but there's so much that it's become a slipping hazard.

And here’s the thing: although in the early days of social media marketing, expert, personalised and public customer service was seen as something unique and amazing (Zappos, a shoe company since bought by Amazon were early trailblazers in this field), it’s now everywhere and expected. Which brings me onto a surprising home truth: people actually quite like it when the mask slips and public figures act like a normal person, with anger, wrath and bile.

Just ask John Prescott. During Labour’s 2001 election campaign, Prescott - a former amateur boxer - threw a left hook at a protester who had egged him at point blank range. The media howled and the Tories demanded Blair sack his Deputy. A poll later discovered that the punch actually did him no harm, with the majority of the public approving of his actions - or rather his sharp reactions.

Given Prescott is not a southpaw, he’d have very possibly broken his victim’s jaw if he’d thrown a right hook. Lucky he struck with the left: a hospitalised voter may not have played out as well in his Hull East constituency, where he still polled 64.6% of the vote 22 days later. At the very least he probably wouldn’t have called his 2008 autobiography “Pulling No Punches”. Prescott continued as Deputy Prime Minister, and entered the House of Lords nine years later.

Another story springs to mind, attributed to then AFC Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam. The story goes that Hammam was confronted by an angry fan shouting about the awful performance he’d just watched, and screaming that it wasn’t worth the cost of him coming every week. Hammam allegedly responded by tearing up the fan's season ticket, and writing him a cheque on the spot. I can find no reference to this online, but while we can question its veracity, it clearly has a natural appeal as a story. The moral? It’s better to ditch whiners, complainers and moaners than to try and fake your way to keeping them. And these people are often bluffing anyway: no doubt the fan came back and bought a new season ticket, tail firmly between legs. Do you believe an irate social media user when he vows, all in caps, never to buy a product ever again? Me neither.

While writing this article, I also discovered Dick’s Last Resort - a chain of American restaurants that intentionally dish out rude and abusive service from their staff. It wouldn’t have become a chain if on some weird level, people didn’t like having their napkins thrown at them by someone trained to show guests fierce disdain. Doubly so when it's directed at their fellow diners.

So far, no big companies have told any of their whining customers where to stick it (hint: not a Facebook comments box) as far as I can tell, but surely it’s only a matter of time. We saw a step in this direction a couple of weeks ago when @o2 responded to a tweet telling them to “suck dick in hell” with “maybe later, got tweets to send right now”, which playfully rose above it, and predictably generated much kudos across the internet. We do occasionally see public figures give as good as they get to their trolls online, but it’s harder to do that as a company’s social media guru without autonomy and the knowledge that you’d still have a job without the niceties.

We will see a change in attitudes to online customer service at some point, but just as the current ‘customer is infallible’ approach was pioneered by small start-ups, it won’t be a big company that takes a chance and lets fly. No doubt it’ll be a spindly backbencher of a brand, rather than a heavy-weight peer, who throws the first left hook online. How the world reacts will define whether it becomes a single assault or a Facebook wide brouhaha.

  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

I haven’t really talked about the UK riots. Not because they’re not important and interesting, but because my Pocket Gamer workload has really picked up. I’ve been reading other people’s analyses, but haven’t had time to put my own thoughts to keyboard.

I suppose I could pretend I wanted to let the dust settle a bit. When the trouble first broke out in Tottenham, I was on a stag weekend in Nottingham. When I returned, some looting was about 10 minutes walk from my current house in Deptford. And now, two weeks on, it’s very much a distant memory.

Except in terms of the law and order backlash on the way as a result. Since Cameron came back from holiday to save the day*, we’ve seen the kind of tough talk that hardline Tories love. Labour have mimicked it in a slightly diluted form - the difference between the two parties, as ever, proving to be like Coca Cola and Coke Zero. They’re both bad for you, but one of them is less obviously so in the short term.

But what’s really interested me about the fallout is how the reactions of the leading figures in our government and capital city reveal a total lack of empathy. They can't contemplate the validity of socio-economic motivations because that isn’t what motivates them.

Let’s take a look at their responses to the idea that rioters were spurred on by financial and ideological concerns:

David Cameron:

Boris Johnson has…

Just as well they’re not sociologists then. Dismissing cause and effect mere days after an event is pretty dangerous.

I’ve also heard next to nothing in the mainstream media trying to justify the riots as linked to politics - the most widely touted press narrative I’ve observed is that some people are just bad, and need a good slap. Anecdotally, it’s depressing to see quite so many previously liberal people wishing for police crackdowns as soon as things get slightly scary, with water cannons, tasers and even live ammo being on many people’s must-have Christmas wishlists.

So why do our leaders feel the need to dismiss sociological justifications when nobody with serious influence was plugging them in the first place?

It’s no coincidence I chose Clegg, Johnson and Cameron to quote. You don’t have to look hard for records of their youthful indiscretions which look suspiciously like vandalism and the same lack of respect they’re accusing of the 2011 youth.

Nick Clegg on his arson of a priceless collection of cacti while on exchange in Germany, aged 16:

David Cameron says he's “deeply embarrassed” about his membership of the Bullingdon Club, an elite Oxford University drinking society that deliberately trashes restaurants, and then lavishly pays for the damage on the way out. Boris Johnson used to be rather proud of his membership until people started to notice that condemning 2011 rioters for criminal damage was hypocritical even by his standards. George Osborne is also a Bullingdon alumnus, but is half way between Cameron and Johnson in his approach, neither boasting about it, nor apologising.

Did Clegg, Cameron, Johnson and Osborne vandalise people’s property because of poverty? Did they do it because they lacked a voice? Were they protesting austerity measures? Were they just plain bad?

No, no, no and probably not. And it’s because of this that I suspect they are unable to believe differently of others.

They’re happy to blame youthful inexperience for their own misdemeanors, but with Clegg 16, and Johnson, Osborne and Cameron aged 18-21 when they committed their vandalism, how can they be so hypocritical when looters in the 2011 riots are said to be as young as 9 - does youthful inexperience only count for those at expensive private schools and Oxford University?

Even more than the expenses scandal, even more than changes to the NHS and even more than the business with electoral reform, the political reaction to the riots has really underlined for me exactly how out of touch our elected officials are with 21st century Britain.

* As an aside: for all his myriad faults (and given I’m currently reading 'The End of the Party’, I think I’m putting that mildly) I can’t imagine Gordon Brown taking 3 days to return from holiday in the event of a national emergency

  • Writer's pictureAlan Martin

So, I went round to my old flat for the last time today (or whenever I post this, given the new place is currently without internet access) to do a check-out and inventory check. While we were there, we decided to get a final use of the residents’ swimming pool (told you it was out of our league) while we waited.

The changing rooms there are open – there’s no lockers, just a bench, a closed shower and a mercifully closed toilet. This isn’t really a problem, as the pool is seldom used by the residents. On this occasion though, there was another gentleman in there who’d just completed his work out in the gym.

Contrary to popular belief, I’m not one for whipping it out* in front of complete strangers, unless they’re qualified medical professionals. And even then, only if they ask. So I very slowly began to undress for the swimming pool, waiting for my new friend to step off into the shower. I was delicately undoing each button slowly and carefully, and even folding my socks neatly and burying them far deeper in my shoes than anyone has ever done before. Yet still the man dithered, standing there, studying his phone with a towel wrapped around his waist.

It was about that moment that I realised we were in a time-wasting race. Me because I’m not a massive fan of indecent exposure, and him because the phone he was using was a fancy iPhone 4. I suddenly realised that he didn’t trust me, who had only entered his life 2 minutes earlier, alone with his brand new mobile phone.

He must have realised we were having a tense stand-off at much the same time, because when I next looked up with literally no more time wasting options available (unless I developed a sudden and unprecedented interest in the workmanship of locker room benches) he had turned his back to me, giving me the ideal opportunity to switch my boxers for swimming shorts.

I went about my final swim. Shortly afterwards, while I was doing lengths of the pool (3/20 for anyone keeping track), another chap entered the pool area. He looked like a cross between Hesten Bloomenthal and former Home Secretary John Reid, if you want to put yourself in the scene. He wandered into the changing rooms as the other chap was presumably now showering.

It occurred to me that if Hesten Reid stole his iPhone, then ran away I’d be the prime suspect. I’d be no good picking the guy out of an identity parade either – what if both Hesten and Lord Reid were in the line-up?

Fortunately, he didn’t. He changed and joined me in the pool. Shortly afterwards, Person 1 emerged triumphant from his shower and left the premises. And we all lived happily ever after.

Well, actually, let’s wait and see how much of my deposit I get back before we sign off on that.

* There were so many potential ways of putting this charming sentiment. Be glad I settled on that one.

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