IMAGE: Samantha Craddock — 123RF

A little common sense can go a long way to setting things right

Spotify’s latest update of its terms and conditions has sparked a storm of protest on the social networks, after a Wired article prompted many people into mistakenly thinking that the company was trying to access all kinds of user data (localization, contacts, even activating their device’s microphone or using photographs). The timing is particularly inopportune, coming precisely as the end of Apple Music’s three-month free trial approaches, an initiative that has managed to attract some 11 million people, the impact of which on competitors and its ability to convert people taking the trial into subscribers still remains to be seen.

The rapid apologies issued by Spotify reveal a number of things: the first is that the company is absolutely aware of the environment it is operating in. It knows that even if the whole thing has been a misunderstanding, it still needed to say sorry. The social networks put the individual on the same level as large companies, bringing both parties closer together and requiring a more personal touch to a relationship that would once have been purely transactional: in the same way that we would expect an old friend we have had a misunderstanding with to apologize, on the social networks, we now require companies who put their foot in it to apologize promptly and unequivocally. An entry on the company blog titled “SORRY.” along with a detailed outline, paragraph by paragraph, of the privacy options in question shows a clear commitment to clarity and transparency, a guarantee able to allay users’ fears.

The company knows that this was the only course of action open to it: these kinds of issues spread like wildfire and can become important factors in deciding whether to opt for a service. Some would say that simply publishing an apology is not enough, and that the company should have used its presence throughout the social networks to highlight what happened and to make it clear that it’s not going to be repeated. Once again: a company’s firepower, which before the social networks meant it could outgun its users due to its control of the mass media, has now been significantly reduced.

In this sense, it doesn’t matter how many people the company tries to reach in saying sorry for what appeared to be vague and ambiguous terms and conditions, because there will always be the risk that even years later, there will be people out there with the idea in their minds that Spotify is “that company that tried to spy on you, steal your photos and find out where you live.”

Finally, we might wonder why Spotify didn’t go about this in a more common-sense way: by this point in the game, it must know how the social networks function. In any event, it has certainly learned a lesson. Nowadays, there can simply be no question of even suggesting that you’re going to do something like use your subscribers’ photos without their permission. It doesn’t matter how clearly explained your terms and conditions are, this kind of behavior, which sets people’s alarm bells ringing, requires any half-way serious company to immediately retract and to address the problem, regardless of what the actual terms and conditions say.

Facebook’s Sponsored Stories perfectly illustrates what can go wrong. Nick Bergus suddenly found himself advertising a two-hundred-liter drum of personal lubricant after he jokingly posted an Amazon advertisement for the product to Facebook, soon after finding himself a de facto salesman for sexual lubricant. Finally, after a $20 million class action lawsuit, in 2014, Facebook axed its Sponsored Stories.

Sponsored stories made Facebook $230 million between 2011 and 2012, but the cost to its reputation was arguably much greater. In short, it’s always worth raising the alarm about possible abuses, but the social networks have now been shown to provide an effective way of preventing them occurring in the first place.

Spotify’s response to its gaffe shows how companies need to behave on the social networks: you can never over-apologize, or too quickly, even if you think you are in the right and the whole thing is a silly misunderstanding. The important thing is to nip the problem in the bud, calm you customers, and limit the damage, regardless of whether the rumors are true or not. Sometimes, a little common sense can go a long way…

(En español, aquí)