You can dismiss a lot of negative feedback in online forums as mere griping from "comment trolls," but it's going to be harder for Apple to brush Lawrence Lessig aside.
The company recent faced an onslaught of criticism after Lessig, the co-founder of the Creative Commons and a noted activist in the online copyright debate, said his posts in an Apple forum were deleted. In fact, Lessig was questioning the deletion of other comments in the space about some issues with iOS 7, which reportedly disables the Wi-Fi capability in certain iPhone models. A few of the users were apparently suggesting returning smartphones under warranty as a recourse, but Lessig says those remarks were removed by Apple. He then went on:
"When did it become inappropriate to inform people about legally protected rights related to technical issues? Is talking about legal rights the new porn? Apple doesn't scrub comments that try to help people by telling them to refer complaints to the feedback page--for in the Sharing Economy that is the Internet, that's free information donated to Apple. But when someone offers advice that tries to help people by telling them to exercise their rights, it gets purged?
This kind of controversy is not isolated to Apple, of course. Even the smallest independent developer who worries about reputational damage or loss of revenue when technology problems crop up could react in a similar way. But calling it censorship, which Lessig does on his blog, may be a bit extreme, because Apple isn't a government entity but a corporation with the legal right to monitor its forums however it chooses. The company's reaction, however, does nothing to help nurture customer relationships and in fact could alienate some loyal, technically-savvy users.
"A simple--'thanks for the comments; we're looking into it'--would be a really cheap way to show respect," Lessig noted, and he's right, of course. I would also say these kinds of situations call for a response from a company representative with a real name and title, not a faceless "we." If Apple fears a deluge of warranty-related returns, it could put the Wi-Fi issue in context and explain why iOS 7 is a transition worth the occasional snafu.
Even if most developers will never have to contend with the volume of online comments that Apple experiences, it may be best for them to respond as if they do.
Imagine yourself as a company whose products are of such importance to your users that you take constructive feedback seriously and respond in kind. If there's bad advice being posted in a forum, correct it instead of trying to make it go away.
Moving users to a new version of an app, much like an OS upgrade, can be a tough sell, but it can be accomplished much more readily if customers see you as a collaborator, not a dictator. This wasn't so much a case of quashing free speech as failing to engage in a real conversation. If Apple had done that in the first place, there might not be so much chatter about any iOS 7 glitches now. -Shane