Twitter Wars: Kevin Smith vs. Southwest Airlines

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On Saturday, director Kevin Smith was thrown off a Southwest airlines flight in order to preserve the "safety and comfort of all customers," i.e., for being too fat. He didn't take it sitting down.

Smith tweeted, with characteristic color, his frustrations throughout the ordeal. Through the magic of Twitter, Southwest responded, contacted the director, and apologized (but stuck to their "Customer of Size" policies).


The Smith/Southwest fiasco is being touted as the latest evidence in the awesome power of Twitter, the one playing field that consumers can take on the Goliaths of the corporate world and emerge victorious; it's @ThatKevinSmith vs. @SouthwestAir, and RTs are the weapon of choice.

But this notion is misguided at best. Kevin Smith is a powerful figure on Twitter with more than 1.6 million followers. Kevin Smith's tweets were so effective because he's Kevin Smith; the fact that Twitter provided the bandwidth is incidental. Twitter is not a wholly democratic shouting platform - it's merely celebrity in a new medium. The average Joe Beergut who tries to tweet his way into an airline's good graces isn't likely to succeed.

But Kevin Smith's indignation reverberated loudly in the Twittersphere, and within hours, Southwest found itself with a doozy of a PR problem. Perhaps, you might counter, Twitter is important precisely because it gives such a forum to those that would otherwise be denied. And that's true, to an extent -- it's often useful for consumer complaints, for example. But this claim is a far cry from empowering the regular individual. Here is an unofficial list of the top Twitter users: you have to go way, way down to find someone who isn't a celebrity or a corporation. Yes, Twitter does provide an open platform, even if it occasionally resembles a verbal cage match with millions of rowdy participants. But it's dishonest to claim that the service is really anything more than just that.

Twitter itself isn't all-powerful. It merely empowers a small, already-privileged group of celebrities who might, if sufficiently pissed off, can really grab an airline's attention. Now if it could just do something to make those seats a bit wider...

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Menachem Kaiser is a Fulbright Fellow in Lithuania.

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