I've noticed that a lot of companies provide really valuable services yet almost inevitably are hated by consumers. I call this "the Comcast Problem," though it isn't limited to Comcast. Companies face this problem when they provide access to things consumers want, but they aren't themselves the goal.

When I consume great internet content, I get warm vibes from whatever site provided the content, whether it's instant free access to the world's knowledge on Wikipedia, thought-provoking discussion on LessWrong, great TV and movies on [whatever streaming platform], or anything else. Conversely, whenever I have problems accessing that stuff, I am quick to blame my ISP (which is in fact Comcast, though it could be anyone). So Comcast is stuck with zero credit for when it provides me with near-instant access to an almost infinite amount of great content (much of it for free[1]), but major blame for the small % of the time when it doesn't.

Similar dynamics exist for airlines and rental car companies - when I take a great vacation it never occurs to me to think "wow, good thing this company was able to provide (mostly) reliable and (mostly) affordable transportation for me!" But they get the blame when there's a problem.

None of this is to suggest that these companies are great, that they couldn't improve, or that they shouldn't fix whatever problems exist. But they are unfortunately stuck with asymmetric vibes, where the problems are their fault but good things come from others.

I claim this is a failure mode, and that these companies' status and image is lower than it "should" be.

  1. ^

    Yes I'm paying a flat fee to my ISP, and then much of the content is provided by third parties for no (additional/marginal) charge.

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I think people hate Comcast because of their customer service and pricing, not the quality of their product. I know plenty of people who used to[1] use Comcast despite hating it because the service was so much better than the competitors.

  1. My hometown has really good sort-of-city-provided fiber now so no one who cares uses Comcast anymore. ↩︎

Yes, my claim is that "The Comcast Problem" is the reason for hatred, as opposed a feeling more like "I really value the service but am annoyed by the customer service and pricing, so overall meh."

On a -5 to +5 scale, I'm saying they are often at like -5 when they really should be somewhere between -1 and +1.

So Comcast is stuck with zero credit for when it provides me with near-instant access to an almost infinite amount of great content (much of it for free[1]), but major blame for the small % of the time when it doesn't.

My disagreement is that I don't think people are generally upset with Comcast about internet service problems, they're upset about completely different parts of the business (billing, customer service).

I think this is fair, since "hating" a company typically has to do with how you feel about your interactions with them (do they treat you fairly, nicely, etc.), not how good they are at their jobs.

Taking this the other direction, some local ISP's provide service that isn't very "good" (using wireless tech, which has fundamental limitations, having fewer people on-call to fix problems, having fewer people to spread up-front costs to), but are very wholesome and nice to work with. Even if I choose not to use their service because of the limitations, I don't hate them because they're doing their best.

Hmm.  Is this a claim that no rating on that scale can be below -1 if you continue using the service?  What purpose does that rating serve, as opposed to just the binary "are you still a customer"?

I think there's a cluster of causes for it, but in truth most of the hated companies deserve a fair bit of the hate they receive.  They really do suck at providing access to things people want in reliable, understandable ways, and they suck even more at reacting to failures and errors.  

I don't think the primary distinction is that they are enabling rather than direct values.  I think monopoly (of airport slots, routes, city wiring access, whatever) plays a large part as well.  They don't have the incentive to compete on many dimensions that customers care about (reliability, customer service, comfort), so they pretty much focus on the unregulated part of pricing, and reducing cost of delivery.  

This COMBINES with the feature you point out, in that the primary reason customers pay is for access to other things (distant travel, internet sites, etc.).  But there are lots of tools and services which are enabling rather than end-value where the market works well and it's not horrific to interact with providers.

For what it's worth, Comcast is really, really good at providing reliable internet access (providing relatively good managed WiFi routers since WiFi is usually the worst part of the network, proactive detection of downtime and service degredation, improving latency even though it's not a 'headline number', maintaining enough slack that they hit the "up to" advertised speed close to 100% of the time, etc.). The only service issue they have is not caring up upload speeds, but there's a fundamental tradeoff with the legacy cable network and they're probably right that most people would rather have faster downloads than faster uploads (still makes me sad though).

I'm probably biased because I worked for the cable industry (around a decade ago), but purely looking at service quality, Comcast is actually very impressive.

I think that's the OP's point, and he (and you) are correct.  Comcast provides, for most people, an incredible service that would have been unthinkably amazing only a few decades ago (I remember pricing out T1 lines in the mid '90s - low thousands per month for 1.5Mbps).  

It's ALSO true that the gap between what it seems like they could do and what they actually do, especially around communication regarding outages, unexpected edge cases, slowdowns due to shared infrastructure, and bad configuration/provisioning, is frustrating.   I can't remember the last time they noticed an outage before I did, and even though it's NEVER my equipment (well-monitored Unifi gear), they won't talk to me until I reboot my damn laptop in addition to their modem.  


A couple of years ago a company I had never heard of sent me a questionaire, in which they said they were responsible for the pipes that took gas to my home. One question was "Do you have a positive opinion of whoever we are?" to which I answered "Neither positive nor negative opinion."

In the "any other comments" section I told them they were really great. Because the fact that I had never heard of them before was a product of never having a gas problem. For them "no one has heard of us" is a sign of wining.

The opposite of this would be a company that doesn’t provide much service but is beloved by consumers.

An example of this is Cookie Time Bakery in Arlington, Massachusetts, which has never provided me with a vital or important object, but I’m always happy when I go there because it means I am about to eat a macaroon.

Are there better examples?


100% of the service that your bakery provides you as part of its job properly is good, even though the absolute amount of good service (or of any service) is small.

is lower than it "should" be.

I think the lesson of social desirability bias is that valuable services having lower status than they "ought" to is the system working as intended.

(Though I'm sympathetic with your view: no reason to be extreme about social desirability bias)

I think the lesson of social desirability bias is that valuable services having lower status than they "ought" to is the system working as intended.


Can you elaborate? I don't understand your point because it's too compressed. I feel like I need ~3 more sentences here to get it.

Maybe OP's idea is that people say that Internet access is a really valuable thing they're very thankful for yadda yadda, but they don't actually treat it that way, and so the low status of a service like this is right where it should be.

If that's what Quinn (comment OP) is saying then I think it's obviously wrong - people really do value the goods and services they access via the internet very highly. This leads me to believe that this is not what Quinn is saying.

What I (post author) am saying is people don't apply even a tiny fraction of the vibes that come with that high value to their actual ISP (or, analogously, airline, electric company etc).

Why does it matter? ‘Vibes’ are nowhere near as good as satisfying shareholders sufficiently or having enough money in the bank account to be a credible operating business, at least in market economies, certainly I imagine Comcast decision makers would care a lot more about the actual legally binding concerns more than all the good ‘vibes’ in the world.

e.g. If their financials seem shaky one day and they could somehow double their cashflow by sacrificing ‘vibes’, they would gladly welcome all the bad ‘vibes’ you could possibly have, times a million. It literally would be a welcome relief to accept this in exchange for more money.