Social media is a powerful tool, and there are plenty of good reasons for individuals to be active in social channels.

But social media’s power is a double-edged sword, and the old adage “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt” is especially relevant today because of services like Twitter and Facebook.

One business owner, Jason Cohen is learning that the hard way. Cohen, who writes a popular blog, is the co-founder of WordPress hosting company WPEngine. And while you might expect him to know better given his blogging experience, he is providing a case study in how not to respond to an unhappy customer.

Jacques Chester was a customer of WPEngine who had a frustrating experience. After reading one of Cohen’s blog posts, which held WPEngine up as an example of a “sustainable” company swimming in a sea of unsustainable companies, Chester took to his blog to explain why he thinks WPEngine “sucked”.

Despite the use of the word “sucked,” Chester’s 1,700 word explanation of why he felt that way is quite reserved and hardly worth dismissing out of hand.

Chester’s post hit the front page of Hacker News, sparking a fiery discussion. On Twitter, Cohen responded with a couple of tweets. One stated, in part, “there’s always someone bitter and hateful” and another revealed that Cohen ignores Hacker News because “there’s always haters”.

That’s probably not the best way to respond to a customer complaint that’s attracting attention, but Cohen now claims that he didn’t know what he was responding to. According to Cohen, he thought he was responding to criticism of one of his posts.

While that seems unlikely given that one of his tweets was a reply to a tweet containing the full title of Chester’s post, and not his own, the negative response to Cohen’s tweets seem well-deserved regardless.

After all, if Cohen was responding to a legitimate complaint of a now-former customer, there’s absolutely no excuse for calling that former customer “bitter and hateful.” But even if Cohen truly was confused, he not only did a disservice to himself and his company by responding with such harsh, petulant words, but admittedly did so without even reading the link he was responding to.

That is perhaps even more embarrassing.

The lessons here aren’t too hard to identify:

  • Responding without reading what you’re responding too is a really bad idea.
  • There’s very little to gain by responding to complaints — both legitimate and illegitimate — with pettiness and negativity.

But while these seem to be rules easy to adhere to, that’s not always going to be the case. The often-distracting, 24/7 nature of social media makes it difficult for individuals to slow down, deliberate and craft an appropriate response to criticism (where a response is even appropriate). In fact, the desire to ‘engage’ and participate in ‘conversation’ may encourage overeager, ill-conceived and poorly-delivered responses.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that more business owners and executives shouldn’t blog and tweet, but given the embarrassing scenario that played out here, it’s no surprise many aren’t chomping at the bit to get started.