In July 2009, a musician named Dave Carroll was traveling with his band from Toronto, Canada, to Nebraska. Looking out the window the plane, however, Dave noticed that the United Airlines baggage handlers were, to put it mildly, failing to treat his rather expensive guitar and a number of other musical instruments belonging to the band with suitable care, preferring instead to sort of fling them through the air into the cargo hold. Dave pointed out to the UAL cabin attendants that this was not likely to be of significant benefit to the instruments’ health, but was told that nothing could be done and he should simply sit down and be quiet. Upon arriving in Chicago, Dave determined that in fact he had been right, and his $2,400 guitar was now $2,400 worth of rather expensive kindling. He pointed this out to the United Airlines staff at the time, and suggested that perhaps some compensation might be in order. United Airlines, in the best bureaucratic tradition, took almost a year to conclude that its folks certainly hadn’t done anything wrong, that Dave was probably just being excessively picky, and that they weren’t about to pony up anything. After all, weren’t they a Fortune 25 company engaged in a conflict with one rather slender young musician? It seemed like a classic application of the business motto once attributed to the old monolithic AT&T: “We’re the phone company…we don’t care. We don’t have to.”
Back then, that worked. In fact, it still does, a lot of the time; money and power still convey a lot of advantage. But here’s where things get interesting. As a practicing musician, Dave was well aware of a recent phenomenon known as YouTube—a strange sort of Internet place where you could essentially tack up as many electronic versions of “95 Theses” as you wanted to, allowing some creativity, some luck, and something called “viral video” behavior to be leveraged on occasion into something quite unprecedented. Let’s start by watching what Dave posted:
Carroll, D. (2009) United Breaks Guitars. Music video posted to YouTube. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YGc4zOqozo&feature=channel
Now lots of people post things on YouTube, and most of them don’t go anywhere. But here’s where it got different in his case; for reasons known primarily to the gods of the Internet, Dave actually did “go viral”—accumulating well over a million hits in fairly short order, rocketing to the top of the charts (to date, almost 10 million hits overall)—and, in the process, vastly confusing United Airlines by creating a highly visible public relations nightmare out of what ought to have been a minor transaction, and also causing the whole IT analysis profession and assorted professors of business to suddenly take seriously the possibility that here was a tool that just might have the potential to bring about a whole new kind of customer relations management. Here are two more videos featuring experts probing at this rather simple case for deep lessons:
Milliken, J. (2010) Brands and Social Media Participation; United Breaks Guitars. Coreographytv. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNpry5iSTBo&feature=related
Owyang, J. (2010) Social Media, Crisis & Reputation Management. Coreographytv. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43-7gDTk49k&NR=1
Dave has even achieved the ultimate B-school immortality—being made into a Harvard Business School case! Here’s how the august professors are now phrasing the Lessons Learned:
Hanna, J. (2010) HBS Cases: United Breaks Guitars. Working Knowledge: Harvard Business School. November 29. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6492.html?wknews=112910
So what does this all mean? Is it just a cute little song that somehow made it big—the proverbial flash in a pan—or is it actually a vision of a new kind of relationship between companies and customers mediated by the larger world of social media? It could be either, or anything in between. One thing is clear, however—this could not have happened even as recently as 6 or 7 years ago. It’s probably equally clear that we’re going to see a lot more of it—and we’re going to see a lot more things like this using tools and technologies that are today still barely on the drawing boards, if they’ve even gotten that far out of the heads of the smart 12-year-olds who are going to be billionaires before they need to shave.
There’s a lot more out there in the optional and supplemental readings as well as the wide wonderful world of the Internet to give you a feel for the nature and effects of social media in business; the more widely you can spread your own information gathering net, the more effective your analysis is likely to be. Your own social media experiences are likely to be useful sources of information as well.
When you believe you have a reasonable feel for how social media are affecting business, you’ll be in a position to prepare an effective short paper (or alternative—see below) on the topic:
Does the availability and use of social media on the Internet really provide businesses with new and different useful information? If so, how? If not, why not?
Since this is a case about new media, it’s only fair that you have some new media alternatives in dealing with it. So while you’re perfectly free to write the same sort of paper that you’ve been accustomed to writing (as described below in the “Assignment Expectations”), you are also encouraged to think about using some sort of more creative social media application in response. If I gave you all the possibilities, it wouldn’t be all that creative, now would it? But by way of stimulus, you might consider:
An unspecified number of points may be awarded for creativity of presentation as well as quality of ideas – but the ideas have to be there first, even if the medium is the message.
PLEASE NOTE: You certainly do not have to use any of these alternatives; it’s perfectly fine just to write a paper as you are accustomed to doing. You won’t be penalized in any way. The alternatives are included here just to get into the spirit of the thing, if you happen to have a little extra time and a little extra tolerance for learning to use new tools under pressure. Please do not feel that you will be disadvantaged in any way by not participating in this strange part of what’s already a very unusual and experimental course!
Length: Minimum 5–7 pages excluding cover page and references (since a page is about 300 words, this is approximately 1,500–2,100 words).
Assignment-driven criteria (25 points): Demonstrates clear understanding of the subject and addresses all key elements of the assignment.
Critical thinking (10 points): Demonstrates mastery conceptualizing the problem. Shows analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of required material.
Scholarly writing (5 points): Demonstrates writing proficiency at the academic level of the course; addresses the Learning Outcomes of the assignment.
Quality of references (4 points) and assignment organization (3 points): Uses relevant and credible sources to support assertions. Assignment is well organized and follows the structure of a well-written paper.
Citing sources (3 points): Uses in-text citations and properly formats references in APA style.
If you opt to do this assignment in some alternative format (such as those discussed above), you are not obligated to also write a regular paper describing it. But you are obligated to (a) consult with your section professor in advance about what you are planning to do, and (b) work out with him/her the specific criteria by which your work will be assessed. When you propose an alternative format, then, you should also be prepared to propose at the same time a framework by which it should be graded. When your professor approves your alternative assignment, s/he will also be approving the grading criteria. Think creatively here!
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