Monopolies and Powerlessness

For the work I do in Hollywood, there is a certain industry directory I have to be in (“have to” meaning, “massively professionally hindered if I refuse”).  It’s a terribly run service, but the fact that everyone uses it means everyone must use it.

In particular, I recently found one of the service’s billing policies to be disingenuous bordering on fraudulent.  Which, you know, made me mad.  So I wrote a strongly worded letter to them telling them so.

I hit “send” on the email, and immediately felt a frisson of apprehension.  Because this particular directory?  I need them way more than they need me.  I may be a paying customer, but them dropping me from their service would be a far worse outcome for me than me leaving the service would be for them.  Other directories exist, but the fact that it’s an industry standard gives this one a de facto monopoly.

So I started to get a little bit nervous about having sent that letter, and that got me even angrier.  Because I shouldn’t feel like I can’t complain about terrible-bordering-on-fraudulent billing practices.  I shouldn’t feel like I can’t speak up when a service I am paying for makes me unhappy.  It’s bad enough that I have to pay money to a service I don’t like because of the other people who use it rather than because the service itself is well-run, that I have to accept an absolutely frustrating user experience and a badly put together system—but to feel powerless on top of it, to feel like there’s any reason I can’t or shouldn’t speak up, is awful.

And yeah, probably nothing will happen.  My letter wasn’t rude or profane, and I wouldn’t think a professional company would kick me off their service for expressing dissatisfaction.  But on the other hand, if I were very upset, how far would I feel comfortable going?  Would I file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau?  If they did something horribly egregious, would I feel comfortable taking legal action against them?  In this scenario, I won’t be doing either of those things; I’m not at that level of unhappiness with them and plus I’m a lazy slacker.  But if I were that angry . . . would I?  Because there’s still the troubling fact that I need them a lot more than they need me.

This experience hasn’t been all that big of a deal, but the emotions of it gave me a certain empathy for anti-monopoly and pro-union sentiments.[1]  Because even in this very minor example, I don’t like feeling I must put up with whatever this company feels like doing, and I hate having the suspicion that it’s riskier to me to speak up about it than it is for them to stomp on their customers with sleazy policies.  I can’t imagine being in a position in which those poles were intensified, in which I had even less power, in which I suffered a greater risk if I stood up—risk of job, of livelihood, of supporting a family, of physical well-being—or in which the company in question were more evil or more aggressive about screwing over its customers or employees.  It’s a terrifying thought.

  1. I mean, I’m not pro-monopoly or anti-union anyway (I tend to have very diverse feelings on unions depending on the particular union and whether it actually does good things for its members and its industry), but this experience has definitely given me a stronger empathy.

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