Back in 2009 the story of Dave Carroll’s broken guitar saw the share price for United Airlines take a big hit as he took to YouTube with a very funny and effective film about how badly the airline had treated him and his guitar.
Illustrating the frequent close interaction between social and traditional media, the YouTube clip generated widespread TV news and newspaper coverage, reaching a far wider audience than the original online one and fuelling further views of the video which in turn encouraged more media coverage in a (for him) virtuous circle.
Dave Carroll was, however, not really just an ordinary customer of United Airlines but in fact a musician far more talented than nearly all of us, with access to a network of skilled people and facilities to turn a song into a professional music video on a zero budget.
In other words, rather than being the story of how social media lets one ordinary person strike back, it was more a story of social media let one highly talented person garner massive media coverage. A different world certainly, but not quite the all new, everyone is equal level playing field some social media evangelists slip into describing.
In a similar, smaller scale way I had a similar experience that reflects these inequalities. In the last year both Stephen Fry and myself have been on Qantas flights that ran into serious problems. Both of us tweeted about them. One became a major story and one did not. I think you can guess which is which.
All this made me turn to Dave Carroll’s book about his experiences with interest, to see how these issues appeared to him from the inside and how he sees the mix of relations between traditional and new media.
The marketing blurb on the outside is not promising with its over-enthusiastic hyping of what happened but once you get inside the book, and Carroll’s typical genial modesty takes over, matters improve quickly. This is not a book of serious, heavyweight analysis; more it is like a long gentle read of the sort you would find in the profile pages of a Sunday newspaper.
The story is a great one, especially showing how a good-humoured and polite reaction to dreadfully bad customer service can bring about exceptional results. As Carroll puts it, “The success of UBG [United Breaks Guitars] was not about anger or confrontation”.
Carroll gives us a detailed account of how his incident turned into an international story, playing up the new opportunities that social media offer people like himself without over-selling it and acknowledging how social and mainstream media often work together, feeding off each other. In fact, several of the key moments identified in the spread of his songs by David Carroll were mainstream media interviews.
The book also explains a fair amount about the music business on the way, the attitude of guitarists to their guitars and how songs get written in particular.
That all makes it an entertaining an interesting read, even for those familiar with social media or with this particular incident, especially thanks to moments such as the IT support scene which involves, yes, turning a computer off and then back on again in order to fix it.