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2/10/2008
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In Defense Of Complaining

Complain about a company, and you'll be accused of being a whiner. But markets thrive on information, so it's every customer's right to complain, and every company's obligation to shut up and listen, says columnist Cory Doctorow.

At this point, there is a small legion of people -- vocal and angry -- looking around to figure out how to e-mail me to tell me I'm an idiot. I know this, because every time I post about this subject -- or any other instance in which a company is behaving badly -- I get a flood of messages telling me:

  1. That it's not [Apple|Microsoft|Amazon]'s fault, it's [AT&T|the RIAA|the MPAA|the publishers'] fault.
  2. If I hate those products so much, why don't I just buy someone else's products and shut up already? It's a free market, after all.

I'm always astounded by this reaction. Companies aren't charities. They're businesses. It doesn't matter why they're offering an unacceptable product -- all that matters is that the product is unacceptable. Companies aren't five-year-olds bringing their fingerpaintings home from kindergarten. We don't have to put on a brave smile and tell them, "that's just lovely dear," and display their wares proudly on the fridge. I don't care if Apple adds DRM because Lars from Metallica has incriminating photos of Steve Jobs, I don't care if Sony BMG put a rootkit on its CDs because they were duped into it by a trickster spirit that appeared to their technologists in a dream. I care whether their product is worth my money. It's the market -- there's no A for Effort.

Even weirder is the idea that companies shouldn't be criticized because in a market, you should just take your business elsewhere. Free markets thrive on good information. For a market to function, customers need to have good information about which goods are worth buying and which ones should be avoided -- that's why we complain in public, to help companies make better decisions.

Companies do dumb stuff (add DRM, lock their handsets, etc) and then shrug and say, "The market demanded this." But "the market" isn't what companies demand of each other. The market is what customers are willing to buy. If your partners won't let you develop a worthy product, that's your problem, not ours.

When corporate apologists say, "Well, it's a free market, shut up and buy someone else's product," or "Well, it's a free market, they're a commercial company, they have to make a profit," they're not really talking about a free market at all.

They're asking for the kind of market where companies get treated like charities (at best) or like promising toddlers. If you're in business to turn a profit, you'd better make a product we want to buy. If your partners won't let you do that, get better partners, or a better line of work. It's not our responsibility to buy your halt, lame products because you can't do a better job.

Cory Doctorow blogs at Boing Boing, and is also a journalist, Internet activist, and science fiction writer. Read his previous InformationWeek columns.

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