Ever wondered… why do people like to vent online?

When going to online review sites, you often notice some reviews raging wildly about how bad the product is, the service, just about anything… Have you ever wondered why do people love to vent online? Electronic “venting” behaviour is well known, and so are the concerns and potential consequences. Yet, while there is much discussion about the effects, even how to deal with it amongst marketing practitioners and academics, few people bother to ask why so many people like to vent online – rather than, for example, talk to friends. Especially as one could expect, that, for example, if a friend may be more likely to believe me and take appropriate action – than a stranger.

A possible [partial] explanation is a tricky bit of psychology: Friends are most likely to try and help – but that may not be what is wanted. I.e. when talking negatively about something, such as in the case of negative Word of Mouth, many people have encountered an interesting problem: When complaining to a friend, there is little satisfaction – but when you complain to a stranger, it’s highly satisfactory. This issue has been raised in previous research on WOM (a classic study in this context is Bearden & Oliver 1985). Unfortunately, it seems to remain largely ignored in the eWOM literature. Yet, it may give an interesting rationale for people venting to strangers online, preferring to tell a few friends.

Let me start with an example: Recently, a friend complained to me about a service encounter. My instant reaction was to try to figure out what might have caused the problem, mainly focusing on explaining what might have caused the strange reaction from my friend’s counterpart. So, while I was attempting to rationalise the encounter in a genuinely well-intended attempt to be helpful and calm down my friend, this had quite the opposite effect on my friend: My friend felt that I was taking the opponents side – and, felt that, by implication, I was accusing him of being the irrational one. Having his confidant and friend “turn on him” was highly unsatisfactory.

As Bearden & Oliver would suggest, my reaction was not untypical. However, this episode might explain why “venting” to a friend is frequently perceived as unsatisfactory – as friends often (in a maybe misguided) way try to help – rather than let the venting stand as it is.

Think of a similar situation, but with a stranger (I admit, in a face to face WOM, this would be a rather unusual situation): If you vent to a stranger in the street, the person is probably far less likely to try and rationalise what was going on. Instead, wanting to get out of the uncomfortable situation, the stranger may simply try to get out of the situation by saying something like “oh, how terrible of XYZ” and move away. As Bearden & Oliver suggest – a much more satisfactory resolution for someone “venting” – and looking for some sympathy or reassurance.

Of course, venting to strangers face to face is not exactly an easy option (unless you want to be seen as “the crazy person”)… but online venting to strangers is the standard. Think of a typical negative Tripadvisor review: Few real-life friends will ever know about the review – or even challenge any points made in the review. Instead, the review is seen mainly by strangers. Strangers may, of course, contradict the negative review – although there is generally minimal ongoing discussion.

 Interestingly, again going back to the original Bearden & Oliver article, people may feel satisfied once they got their point “out there” – and “walk away” from the issue. In other words, the action of writing or even crafting (unchallenged) the review and getting it out there may deliver enough satisfaction to “let go of the issue” – so any future contradictions are less likely to be seen in the same way as a real-time discussion with a friend face to face. In an interesting twist, Bearden & Oliver suggest that in some cases, if a public complaint has been made, the “feeling of satisfaction” can be so good that even in the absence of a resolution, a consumer repeats a purchase of a product previously complained about – prompting them to conclude that complaints behaviour should be encouraged (although they were not talking about very public complaints behaviour, such as in the case of TripAdvisor).

To summarise, the likely (even potentially well-meaning) reactions of friends, which are perceived as unsatisfactory when complaining, may in part explain why the internet is an interesting – and attractive forum for venting negative emotions or often bitter complaints. There are undoubtedly other factors that may make the internet an engaging platform (such as the imagined reaction of strangers etc) – but the role of feeling unsatisfied with face to face complaining to friends should not be forgotten.

BEARDEN, W.O. and OLIVER, R.L. (1985), The Role of Public and Private Complaining in Satisfaction with Problem Resolution. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 19: 222-240. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6606.1985.tb00353.x

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